Promoting vegetarianism while driving a retail business: an interview with Mark Fergusson of Down to Earth

This time on VFV, we had a chance to speak with Mark Fergusson, who’s not just the CFO and CEO but also the CVO of Down to Earth, Hawaii’s only all vegetarian food store chain. What’s a CVO? That’d be Chief Vegetarian Officer! Mark adopted the title in October of 2009, and as he puts it, “it’s an easy thing to do that’s going to help get the message out there.”

I got in touch with Mark via email and phone after someone on his team contacted me about their company’s blog, and I took the opportunity to learn more about how they’ve been using blogging and other social media to promote their business, and vegetarianism in general.

OK, tell us a bit about Down to Earth.

Down to Earth is Hawaii’s only all vegetarian food store chain and one of only a few in the nation. The company was founded by and is managed by strict vegetarians. It was started in 1977, over 30 years ago, when a group of friends in Wailuku, Maui, turned their vision into a business dedicated to improving the health of island communities through organic and natural products and a vegetarian lifestyle. Today the company operates a chain of five natural foods stores in Hawaii: Honolulu, Kailua, and Pearlridge on Oahu; Kahului on Maui; and Hilo on the “Big Island” of Hawaii.

Down to Earth firmly believes that:

“The single most important thing an individual can do for their health, for the environment, and for the sake of the innocent animals is to adopt a vegetarian diet.”

We first got in touch through an announcement about your blog, so let’s talk about that: how does blogging fit into your business strategy?

Our business strategy is to provide all vegetarian Organic & Natural products to our customers. The most important aspect of our marketing is community outreach, i.e. educating people about the many benefits of adopting a vegetarian diet consisting of organic and natural foods. Our website www.downtoearth.org is primarily an education/outreach website, the blog is the part of our website that provides up to date news and perspectives on vegetarian and related issues. The blog is a way to communicate with our customers, vendors, team members, and the general public about local (Hawaii), national and international issues relevant to their health, and the environment, all written from a vegetarian perspective.

You have multiple people blogging on behalf of the company. How does that work?

It started as my blog. As the Chief Vegetarian Officer, and also as the CEO/CFO, I wanted to communicate my thoughts on important issues to our customers, our team members, and to the broader community as I believe that I am in a unique situation, running a successful business based on vegetarian values, and am thus able to communicate about health, environmental and related issues from a perspective of the CEO of a company that is successfully living its values.

I rather quickly learned that blogging takes a lot of time, a lot more time than I have available, so I had to get some help. I engaged Shelly Wilkinson, a Hawaii customer who used to work in our community outreach department and who has a Master’s degree in geography, to help research and draft up blogs. Even that level of help was not enough as I had to review the draft blogs and change them to my voice; thus it was still too time consuming. So we decided to let Shelly blog in her own name. Caitlin is a customer who was posting some very insightful comments in response to some of my blogs, and who even started sending me blog posts. I asked Caitlin to become part of the blog team as well. So now there is the 3 of us, and we will see how it goes, we may add more bloggers to blog about the products we sell. Both Shelly and Caitlin are part timers and the only work they do for us is in connection with the blog and research into vegetarian and related issues.

I maintain editorial control by reviewing all blogs before they are posted. An important part of my doing this is to ensure that we do not develop an aggressive or critical tone or alienate anyone, we are not trying to force people to agree with us, we are educating people. We appreciate that our readers are free to accept our views or not, and regardless of their views on the issues we welcome everyone to shop with us, as you don’t need to be vegetarian or vegan to benefit from the products we sell.

The internet is global, and Hawaii is an island. Do you keep that distinction in your mind at all when thinking about online marketing?

Down to Earth has as one of its medium term goals to open stores on the Mainland USA. Developing an active Internet presence will help us develop name recognition for when we make that move. However, the main aim of the blog is communicate about issues that we believe are important. Down to Earth is a long established and reputable company here in Hawaii; we are an important part of the communities we operate in, and people are interested in our views on health and environmental issues. While we are primarily directing our blog towards Hawaii readers, the blog, like our website, is relevant for everyone regardless of where they are in the world.

Do you do anything in store to drive traffic?

No, not really. Through our print materials we have some mention of it, and in our email newsletters we promote it, but as far as within the store, no, not that much.

Obviously our main thing is that we’re quite a busy company, running five stores with about a hundred team members, so our web presence isn’t really to drive traffic to the stores; we’re not selling anything on the website, so it really is an outreach effort, that’s the main focus of it. That’s our marketing, basically, as outreach.

How would you compare traditional offline marketing like print to your online efforts?

Our offline marketing is mainly directed towards print ads for specific sale events. Examples include the major sales we hold at Earth Day and on World Vegetarian Day, and also when we do store openings, remodeling, etc. We have a huge, 20,000 plus, membership in our loyalty card program, and we thus are emailing and mailing various materials to our card holders. Being retailers we have a lot of instore promotional materials and signage relating to our sale items, in particular we have monthly sales flyer program that is very popular. Down to Earth is a natural products retailer, we operate multiple stores, and we run them very efficiently. In addition to our real world presence, we have added a strong website, and blog, to promote our beliefs in our vegetarian mission and try to make the adoption of a vegetarian diet more accessible to people.

Thanks!

I’d like to thank Mark for taking the time to chat with me for this interview, and for promoting vegetarianism in general.

For more information on Down to Earth, you can check out their blog at http://www.downtoearth.org/blog or, if you’re in Hawaii, you can visit one of their retail locations.

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