What Is ‘Natural’ And Why Does It Matter?

What does ‘natural’ mean to you? Is it a physical property of an item that has been freshly picked, for example, or home grown? Or is it something more abstract or conceptual? Either way, naturalness is desirable; it evokes images of untouched wilderness and of freedom, and can conjure a sense of spirituality, imagination or potential.

Equally important is the feeling that naturalness carries a sense of appropriate order, or rightness – things are operating as intended. The word ‘natural’ in consumer marketing, especially in categories such as food, conveys ideas of purity, healthfulness and, above all, value.  Consumers, regardless of age, gender or other demographics, consider ‘natural’ foods more desirable and worth more than ‘non-natural’, ‘artificial’ or ‘processed’ alternatives[1].

Although naturalness is important and attractive, it can be difficult to define. Imagine a wildfire, in which a blaze consumes a swathe of wooded forest. The fire appears to be a naturally occurring process of combustion, a chemical reaction between fuel – wood – and oxygen, ignited by the heat of the sun. As we watch a fire spread on television, it is unsettling to hear that the blaze has been traced back to an act of human negligence or carelessness. The sense of queasiness we may feel comes from the interruption of what we believed to be a natural process; something artificial has broken the brittle façade of naturalness. And yet, the fire itself is no different.

This raises some interesting questions: what do we mean by ‘natural’? How far do the boundaries around naturalness extend? How strict are these boundaries? Why are we systematically more sympathetic to things deemed to be ‘natural’?  And, most importantly for marketers, why are consumers so enthusiastic about naturalness?

This paper is designed to explore these questions. We’ll consider what determines how one item is seen as natural whilst another (physically identical) item is not.  And why some brands (often small) seem to be successful in adopting naturalness as part of their identity while others (often larger) struggle, despite creating products using similar ingredients.

Behavioural Science has much to offer in helping us better understand these issues, because our understanding of naturalness is as much based on psychological dimensions as it is on the physical attributes of the products themselves.

Two types of natural: instrumental and ideational

There are two types of justification for wanting naturalness, instrumental and ideational[2]. Instrumental reasons, which are the focus of much research, refer to the advantages of naturalness, the feeling that it is inherently better – more attractive, healthier or kinder to the environment.  But it is not as simple as this.  When consumers’ instrumental reasons for preferring a natural item have been neutralised by offering, for example, an option that is chemically identical, the preference for the naturally derived item remains[3].

This suggests that we also have ideational notions of naturalness – more abstract moral or aesthetic concepts, as opposed to material health or environmental benefits, as suggested by the instrumental justification.  This may be an effect of construal level theory[4], which suggests that our perception of things differs according to our psychological distance to the concept: we think in a concrete and practical way about things that are in close proximity (in time, space or socially) whereas we think abstractly about those that are more distant. We suggest that, rather than viewing naturalness (which is an intangible feature) as a concrete benefit, people may view it more distantly, as an abstract benefit, which is sustained even when instrumental reasons have been removed.

An example of how an idea of something can evoke concerns about naturalness as much, if not more, than instrumental reasons is the ‘toilet-to-tap’ phenomenon[5]. All water is physically contaminated, and endlessly recycled. However, when people are asked if they would drink water that has been recycled from toilet water, the vast majority of consumers refuse to do so. The idea evokes feelings of disgust, which is a very strong emotion often associated with bodily products.[6]

This demonstrates that when we ask if something is natural, we need to explore the different aspects of what we mean by this apparently simple, but elusive, term.

What makes something natural?

The fact that it is not simply the physical make up of an item that determines naturalness means we need to better understand why some things are considered to be natural while others are not.  A review of the literature suggests that there are two main factors that affect perceptions of naturalness: processing, and disgust and contagion.

Processing

Perceptions of the naturalness of an item are vulnerable to the type and degree of processing it undergoes.  Natural items are fairly uncompromised if they are mixed with other natural products (such as fruits in a smoothie) or if there are changes in the physical states (such as freezing or crushing).[7] However, if the natural product undergoes a change in the nature of the substance – such as by boiling, which can remove vital nutrients from the food (Yuan et al. 2009), adding less natural items, or subtracting items from it, the perception of naturalness is significantly changed.   So, naturalness comes from both the substance of the item and the processing, and as the above toilet-water example infers, we place a great deal of emphasis on the processing.

Some processes, such as domestication of animals, one can argue, involve major changes in substance. The process of selective breeding, over time, replaces less attractive genes with more attractive ones (such as to enhance the sheen of the coat). This type of processing is typically seen as natural – a cocker spaniel, one of the most intensively ‘engineered’ of dog breeds – is viewed as only marginally less natural than a wolf (Brush 2013).  However, gene replacement therapy (Genetic Home Reference, 2019), a relatively novel medicinal technique that may allow doctors to treat human ailments by inserting genes directly patient’s cells (, is not viewed as natural, despite having less of an impact both in terms of the appearance and of the state of the genome, than selective breeding.

In these examples, whilst the type of processing is important, there are also changes to the substance. To understand more about the effect of processing on perceptions of naturalness we need to find examples where the substance is not changed. Psychologist Paul Rozin’s experiments[8] with water and tomato paste presented people with different levels of processing of the paste and asked to judge the naturalness.

  • Original: Tomato paste
  • Once-transformed: A combination of tomato paste and water
  • Twice-transformed: The tomato paste that was combined with water, and then has the water removed. The paste is now identical to the original

The ‘twice-transformed’ tomato paste is not only considered less natural than the ‘once-transformed’ item but also less natural than the original – despite being identical in substance.  It is important to note that participants were not asked to physically interact with the product – they did not taste or touch the products.

One explanation for the results of this experiment draws on the role of essentialism in perceptions of naturalness. Essentialism can be defined as “some unique, hidden property of an object by virtue of which it is the object that it is.”[9] If this product has a ‘natural essence’ in the eyes of the consumer, it should be unaltered by changes to its substance. Critical to maintaining this sense of naturalness, however, seems to be the absence of human involvement – people appear to be a contaminating force[10].

The experiment shows how the processing rather than the substance of the item is a determinant of our perceptions of naturalness, and helps to explain why two identical products may be viewed differently.  A small brand, which is less associated with mass production processes, may find it easier to promote the idea that their item is more natural.  The lesson here for large brands is not to compete for naturalness based entirely on the substance of the product but also on the manufacturing process, as that is where many ideas of naturalness are formed.  Customers have traditionally needed to trust that products that are advertised as natural have been produced according to natural standards. However, there has been a cultural shift towards transparency in food manufacturing processes, which large brands should embrace as it may further foster the essence of naturalness that products can harbour – thriving in the absence of human involvement.

Disgust & Contagion

The second way in which we form ideas about naturalness or otherwise is through disgust. According to research interpretations of disgust and other core emotional responses appear to be quite universal (Rozin et al. 1999; Ekman and Friesen 1971). As a result,  societies have highly prescribed notions of disgust which are hard to change. There are a range of behaviours that invoke disgust, such as (consensual) sex between siblings or a family eating its dead pet dog.[11] These feelings of disgust remain even when any harmful consequences (e.g. siblings may get pregnant, dog flesh makes you ill) are eliminated.  Disgust is less about the consequences and more about values, which often relate to unnaturalness and impurity. [12]

We tend to treat items we associate with disgust as having powerful contagious characteristics. The ‘intuitive contagion heuristic’ is a term for the way in which things can exchange properties or ‘essences’ through contact – when one of the objects is ‘disgusting’ then the other object also becomes disgusting when they touch. An example of this is that of a heat-sterilised dead cockroach which is dipped into a glass of water, which then becomes psychologically contaminated and therefore unacceptable.[13]

There are two types of contagion that we can consider.[14]

  • Material contagion: here contagion is a physical substance and can be neutralised by washing, filtering, boiling or other treatments
  • Spiritual contagion:  this involves the entrance of some kind of spiritual essence that does not resemble any physical material – a form of essentialism, as described above.

Psychologist Bruce Hood illustrated this effect by asking people if they’d be willing to wear a cardigan, offering a financial incentive. Most people agreed. But then he asked, ‘Would you still wear it if you knew it belonged to Fred West’ (a notorious mass murderer)?  Most people then refused, saying it felt disgusting or dirty.

There are some clear characteristics of essentialist contagion:

  • Physical contact is necessary for it to be effective
  • Permanence – once contact has been made then neither time nor distance reduces the effect
  • Dose insensitivity – only a very brief contact is needed to endow an item with disgust properties
  • Resistance to purification – some contaminants can’t be removed by cleaning, leaving the item permanently disgusting

The implications for brands are clear.  It is important to understand the different elements which may create a sense of disgust. Brands are more likely to focus on reducing perceptions of material contagion by, for example, ‘clean labelling’ – replacing food additives with more natural sounding alternatives. However, spiritual contagion is a more significant issue.  For example, images of mass food production, such as abattoirs, or chickens in battery farms can appear to evoke feelings of disgust that can contaminate the product.  When there are food scares, such as e-coli contamination, which is related to consuming traces of animal faeces, the resulting public backlash operates in the same way, as brands’ offerings can suffer in areas beyond the immediately affected product (Witzel 2013).

Framework

Much of the way we think about naturalness focuses on the properties of the item, so brands put a lot of effort into the substance of the products they are developing, and into promoting them with this focus:  the more natural the ingredients, the better.  However, we believe there are opportunities for brands to take a more holistic view of how perceptions of naturalness form and become more adept at imbuing products with psychological as well as material naturalness. A behavioural science framework to enable brands to do so, is outlined below.

A behavioural science framework for naturalness

Defining natural Instrumental
Are there some ingredients in the product / category that are considered less natural?
Ideational
Are there broader notions of naturalness relating to the product / category?
Drivers of natural Processing
Which aspects of the manufacturing process are in the public domain and which are problematic?
Disgust & Contagion
Is there a potential for some aspects of the product / category to evoke disgust?

By Colin Strong & Tamara Ansons

 


 

[1]  Rozin et al 2004

[2] Rozin et al 2004

[3] Rozin et al 2004

[4] Trope and Liberman (2010) the full reference wasn’t listed

[5] Monks 2015

[6] Rozin & Fallon 1987

[7] Rozin 2005

[8] Rozin 2006

[9] Medin and Ortony (1989)

[10] Rozin et al. (2006)

[11] Haidt, Koller, & Dias, 1993

[12]  Haidt et al 1993; Rozin, Haidt & McCauley, 2008

[13] Rozin et al 1986

[14] Nemeroff & Rozin 1994