retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

Organic foods and online social gaming may at first seem an odd pairing, but today it adds up to a recipe for sweet success on the internet. The partnership between organic producer Cascadian Farm and FarmVille, the nation’s hottest social network game with 20 million daily users, has caught the web and the mainstream media’s attention.

It’s also a perfect example of how quickly the cyber-landscape is changing and how a retailer, marketer or service provider can capture and monetize its target audience using innovative strategies.

Let’s start with online gaming. Like many, I initially (and incorrectly) thought it was the limited domain of poker addicts and teenage boys waging wars or icing Mafia foes until 3 a.m. In fact, a recent Nielsen survey showed online gaming has overtaken email as the number two online activity, outpaced only by social networking, the most popular sites being Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

And while participants cross all demographic groups, women are now the largest and fastest growing constituency of online gaming. (For the uninitiated, animated games such as FarmVille and Mafia Wars are free and are played through Facebook or iPhone applications. You can play solo or collaborate with friends and family, and spend real money on virtual “cash” to buy goods, crops or animals). About 60% of FarmVille’s players are women between the ages of 20 and 40, who play the game for 10 to 15 minutes at a time.

General Mills, which owns Cascadian Farm, first tapped FarmVille in May when its Green Giant Fresh subsidiary placed a coded sticker on broccoli and other fresh products at 4,000 Target stores across the nation. Users could redeem the stickers at for five free FarmVille “cash units” – and $100,000 worth of units were cashed in over a five week period. Plans are in the works for that program to expand, reportedly to WalMart and other stores.

Cascadian Farm, a Washington-state based producer of organic cereals, granola bars, vegetables and juice concentrates, joined the game with a promotion last month. It offered all FarmVille players, including beginners, a virtual crop of branded organic blueberries that can be harvested faster and bring a bigger cash return than other crops.

The company, whose products are grown on 15,000 acres in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, said up-front its long-range goal was to teach players about organic farming and green living, and boost its name recognition and mission. Cascadian also created an avatar/blueberry tender named Farmer Joe Cascadian on Facebook and he had 5,000 friends in no time. (I’m still waiting for my friend request to be accepted.) The sites reveal involved and enthusiastic players, sending “photos” of their virtual blueberry crops, blogging about farming and recipes, along with well-placed links to Cascadian’s home page. And in a nod to the real world, the FarmVille site included a $1 coupon to be redeemed in an actual store.

While the final numbers are not available, early figures shows that in less than four days more than 310 million organic blueberry crops were planted by more than 1 million people in FarmVille. That’s a ton of blueberries, and good will.

Further evidence of a trend: Hot on its heels was an announcement Monday that Honda will introduce its soon-to-launched CR-Z sport hybrid August 23rd on a new site for car enthusiasts called Car Town. If your tastes run to Lamborghinis over lettuce crops, that might be the game for you.

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