Dissertation: Organic is the new black – organic food is a feast for reputational messages

Posted on 18/02/19.

Petteri Puska will defend his doctoral dissertation on Friday, 22nd of February.

A strong reputational symbolism encompasses organic food consumption, claims the new doctoral dissertation conducted at the University of Vaasa (Finland). Several socially valued traits such as sophistication, affluence, and unselfishness are associated to those who favour organic food. According to M.Sc.(Econ.)Petteri Puska, who will publicly defend his work on February 22nd, organic appears to be the “new black” – this insight should not be ignored by marketers, retailers, and societal actors.

Consumers typically self-report favouring organic food because of its tastiness, healthiness, and ethical aspects. A suspicion that this is not necessarily the whole truth caused Petteri Puska to do a dissertation on the topic.

– I noticed that people tended to express quite loudly that they are pro-organic. It always sounded a bit strange and got me thinking why this happens, comments Puska to shed light on the reasons that inspired him to do the dissertation.

In this doctoral thesis, conducted in the University of Vaasa, the reputational signal value of organic food consumption was studied via different perspectives and by applying a variety of methods. These related to, for example, making product choices, evaluating the appeal of food samples, and determining consumer images.

In the study, participants’ nonconscious status motives were activated via priming. That caused them to prefer organic options. The effects were not limited to product choices. After the participants were led to believe that they are being observed by others, the food sample served as organic even tasted better.

– It is noteworthy that in reality the food sample was not organic but produced by using conventional methods. Food consumers seem to go green eagerly when reputation is at stake, Puska says.

According to Puska, this status symbolism may be helpful when trying to increase the relatively poor sales of organic food (in Finland, for example, organic food constitutes less than 3% of consumed food).

Emphasising status clues in the selling environments of organic food and more visible selling locations might be a potential first step in such efforts, Puska proposes.

According to him, reputational motives should not be forgotten when marketing sustainable products in general – such as electric vehicles.

Going organic will get you respect! Or not

The reputational signal value of organic food consumption is, however, not the same everywhere. According to Puska, this is one of the most intriguing findings of the thesis.

– In a study conducted among male respondents in the Helsinki metropolitan area, a male who seemed to be pro-organic was highly respected and even treated favourably, whereas, in an identical study carried out in a Finnish rural area, the results were practically opposite, Puska reports.

This underlines the importance of customer segmentation: organic foods should not be marketed to all consumers and everywhere by using the same arguments.

– However, many socially valued traits such as sophistication, affluence, and unselfishness were generally attached to those who favour organic food, he says.

Why, then, can organic food carry this social status value?

Being a sustainable and expensive option, organic consumption may provide a context to consumers to signal their altruistic tendencies and financial resources to others – similarly, the top purchase motives for eco-friendly, distinguishable, and relative costly hybrid cars have demonstrated to be reputational, Puska points out.

The phenomenon is much broader than organic food

According to Puska, the phenomenon is not just about organic food. Throughout time, people have wanted to be seen as unselfish as possible.

– In recent discussions in social media, the term ‘virtue signalling’ has often come up: the true motives of people defending immigration or males supporting feminist ideas have been questioned by their opponents, he adds.

According to Puska, people have a deeply ingrained tendency – and often unconsciously active – to attain respect from others, and (seemingly) altruistic acts are a potential path to it.

– The Nordic countries may be a favourable environment for such “prosocial status signalling” because displaying materialism is not as valued here as it perhaps is in some other cultures. Behaving for the benefit of others could be the most effective way to gain respect, Puska states.

The dissertation has been made as a part of an interdisciplinary consortium project, MainGreen, in which Puska worked as a researcher. The three dissertation articles have been published in Appetite, Psychology & Marketing, and Journal of Food Products Marketing.

Further information

Petteri Puska, tel. +358 41 435 8521, email: petteri.puska(at)univaasa.fi

Puska Petteri (2019). Organic is the new black: Sending and interpreting reputational signals in the context of organic food choices. Acta Wasaensia 415. Väitöskirja. University of Vaasa. Vaasan yliopisto.

Publication pdf: http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-952-476-845-0

Publication orders: https://verkkokauppa.juvenes.fi/tuote/24739/organic-is-the-new-black-sending-and-interpreting-reputational-signals-in-the-context-of-organic-food-choices

Public defence

The public examination of M.Sc. Petteri Puska´s doctoral dissertation ”Organic is the new black: Sending and interpreting reputational signals in the context of organic food choices” will be held on Friday 22 February at noon in Seinäjoki (Frami B, Auditorio 2). The field of dissertation is marketing.

Professor Tommi Laukkanen (Itä-Suomen yliopisto) will act as opponent and professor Harri Luomala as custos. The examination will be held in Finnish.

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