Marketing the Amish

“Amish” sells.

That fact is not lost on the numerous merchants of Amish-branded stuff. Software, refrigerators, and organic cotton bedsheets are among the products that non-Amish dealers have sold under the Amish moniker or by association with Amish images.

Cigar palma Amish
photo: amishcigar.com

A female Amish acquaintance in Ohio who runs a food-related business herself offered an example, complaining, good-naturedly, about the use of the Amish name on products.

‘Amish-made whatever!…We feel it’s not right to use ‘Amish’ just so we can sell something.  Not everybody feels that way, and that’s okay.’

‘Amish water, hey!’ She continued.  ‘We didn’t make the water, God did!  Or they’ll go to a restaurant and say ‘is this Amish chicken?’  Well that chicken has never been Amish!’

‘Still not baptized!’ I pointed out.

Yet many Amish owners don’t exactly mind if word gets out about their background. They know what sells.|

What do Amish think?

What is the general Amish view on the topic?  It’s an interesting issue, as opinion is divided. You won’t find many Amish-owned firms with ‘Amish’ in the name. A general rule of thumb is that “if it says Amish, then it ain’t”. Or it’s at least not being sold directly by an Amish person.

Or if it’s a business, owned by one. When asked, an Amish acquaintance in Ohio knew of just one firm with “Amish” in the name that was Amish-owned (and which had subsequently been sold to a non-Amish person).

Yet some Amish promote their status in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.  Some release promotional literature and catalogs with images or text implying or stating the owner’s Amishness.

Amish Market New York
“Amish Market” in New York City. Photo: mikeeatsfood.blogspot.com

Others may use pictures of Amish children for marketing purposes, as photos of unbaptized children are often seen as more acceptable.

Truth be told, most Amish don’t like explicitly promoting their products with their name. But a lot of other people do. For example, this anecdote from reader Kim, on an “Amish” product in a large retailer:

I saw an interesting thing at Wal Mart. “Amish Potato Salad” alongside Original and Mustard. I tried figuring out what was “Amish” about it. All I could see was it contained salad dressing instead of mayo? I picked up the Mustard.

The fact is, freeriders on the Amish name are all over the place in Amish Country (and beyond). The Amish find this slightly annoying. But they live with it. Suing is out of the question, and how could you do it, even if you wanted to? There is no ‘Amish’ trademark.

The Amish “Label” – and the mystery of “Amishness”

Whether it’s an overpriced bag of trail mix or a six-figure kitchen cabinet installation, people gravitate towards the implicit quality of anything with the Amish label.

But exactly what does that label mean?

Does tobacco grown in the general vicinity of Amish country count as ‘Amish’? What about an RV produced at a factory with Amish workers? Does an Amish person actually have to make the product, or sell it, or just handle it at some point along the way?

‘Amishness’ is a bit of a mystery. Just where does it come from?

There really is no regulatory body for this sort of thing. Would be nice if there was. Then the Amish could get rid of some of the freeriders.

polish amish butter

Often, the connection to bona fide ‘Amishness’ (whatever that term means) is dubious at best.  David Luthy wrote an article in the mid-90s in Family Life on the phenomenon of Amish-name branding.

Luthy offers the example of a turkey-processing plant which used the Amish name, writing, ‘to qualify for such a label all that was needed was that someone Amish carried buckets of commercial feed to them or an Amish person worked in the processing plant!’

Or to take another example, shared by reader Doug:

There is a store here in our small town in the Arizona desert that sells “Amish Furniture.” It’s very fine quality stuff and not inexpensive. I asked the owner, a seemingly gentle soul with a longish but neatly trimmed beard “Are you Amish or from an Amish background?” He replied with a smile “Well, I could be!”

Amishness often seems to be a near-mystical quality that the Amish alone may dispense, apparently by merely running fingers over a product or with an approving nod in its direction. And if you’re not Amish yourself, you can always simulate it, as Doug’s example shows.

Another Example – Amish Naturals

One last example. Here’s an ad for Amish Naturals pasta.

It hits all the main points – made by Amish hands, ingredients cultivated in the heart of Ohio’s Amish country, water from Amish wells, and the noodle plant was even constructed by Amish workers. Plus it’s all-organic.

Products like Amish Naturals encapsulate “Amishness” and serve it up in a convenient package for a reasonable price.

As the Amish population continues its explosive growth, ‘wellness living’  increases in popularity, and the Amish mystique shines ever brighter, city folk hankering for things like ‘simplicity’, ‘goodness’, and ‘all-natural’ will be buying this type of stuff more and more.

More power to them, I suppose. Simply put, the “Amish brand” tells a story that more and more of us want to hear.

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    20 Comments

    1. Bill

      I really like oak furniture and much of my home is furnished in oak. Not too many years ago furniture stores started popping up around my area selling Amish made furniture and touting the “Amish” name in their business monikers. We stopped at these places and found pieces we liked and bought them. What got me to start travelling to “Amish Country” is I decided to go find a builder or builders and buy directly from them rather than buying from these “Amish furniture stores” and paying their markup prices. Doing this I wait longer and have to find my own transport for the furniture but I save money and enjoy dealing directly with the builder. What I’m getting at here is none of the Amish furniture makers signs read “Amish furniture” on them.
      And I’ve never eaten an Amish blueberry pie but I’ve eaten blueberry pies made by the Amish. 🙂

    2. Ann

      Ah, us Quakers can really relate to this.

    3. Makes me think of the tourist traps in Berlin, OH. There in the middle of the “Amish Country” shops you can buy yourself Harley Davidson memorabilia.
      Well, at least it isn’t advertised as “Amish Harley” stuff!
      This post also made me think of what an Anabaptist preacher preached just recently:
      If the Amish (and Mennos) would preach like the 16th-century Anabaptists did, the tourist business would hit the basement. Not too many folks would drive a hundred miles see a preacher tell them to repent from their sins (especially if he would get specific in naming those “sins”!).

    4. swartzamish

      Hi Eric,
      Up here in Northern New York we started a petition to appeal to the Ny Attorney General to investigate civil rights violations against the Swartzentruber Amish in Morristown, NY.

      Here’s the link:
      http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/swartzamish/index.html

      Hope you will do a blog piece about it!
      The swartzamish team

    5. swartzamish

      Hi Eric,
      Up here in Northern New York we started a petition to appeal to the Ny Attorney General to investigate civil rights violations against the Swartzentruber Amish in Morristown, NY.

      Here’s the link:
      http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/swartzamish/index.html

      Hope you will do a blog piece about it!
      The swartzamish team

    6. Bill

      Revisiting this topic brings me to think if there are no Amish at the point of sale of Amish made products it makes good business sense for the merchant to point out that a product is Amish made. Using the Amish name as if it is a “brand” name is quite a stretch but I don’t see anything wrong with letting customers know they are buying Amish produced goods. It doesn’t hurt that the point of this discussion is “Amish” sells.

      This leads me to ask what’s out there that can be called “Amish” in the same sense as one would call certain food dishes “Italian” or “Mexican”?

    7. Michael, interesting you bring up motorcycles. There is actually a “Holmes County Choppers” T-shirt out there, complete with Amishman-on-a-motorcycle logo and something clever written beneath which I’ve forgotten.

      I’m guessing the ‘company’ is, most likely, fictitious.

    8. Interacting with Amish at their businesses

      Bill in your first comment I think you’ve hit right on a big part of the appeal of buying direct from Amish Country–in that it provides an opportunity to interact directly with the producer, and especially in that it allows for the customer to dip his toe a little bit deeper into Amish society than, say, a visit filled with more standard activities would allow. An Amish furniture retailer was recently telling me how much he enjoys the relationships he’s developed with his customers over the years, while acknowledging the appeal of being able to come on-site to buy.

      As you know these shops are typically located at the homes and being able to go on-site and see the furniture actually being produced also reinforces the ‘authenticity’ and ‘hand-crafted’ elements of the story.

      I actually had two questions if I can ask- do you usually go to the same producer? Someone you’ve gotten to know as in the example above? And, from a buyer’s standpoint, what appeals to you most about Amish furniture, in a general sense?

    9. Bill

      Hi Erik! I’ve gone to the same builder for the items I wanted. I was referred to him after stopping at a couple other places that didn’t make what I was looking for. I’m sure you already know all builders don’t make the same products. Some builders use different woods or specialize in certain products. For example the builder I go to does not make chairs. If you order a table or dining room suit from him he will build the table and the other pieces and get the chairs unfinished from another builder and stain and finish them to match the table.

      For me the appeal of Amish made furniture is the look and the quality. The first time we went into an “English” run Amish furniture store we thought “If only we knew about this sooner”. Traditional style oak furniture was always our preference and for the price the quality of most Amish made furniture is hard to beat, especially when buying directly from a good and honest builder.

      1. Vic Strevel

        Amish furniture

        Hi,

        Thanks for your information. Can you please give me the Amish name, phone number, and email of who builds and sell you your oak furniture.

        Thanks a lot,

        VIC

    10. Amish furniture parts assemby

      Amish furniture has a well-deserved rep for quality. I wouldn’t say it’s always the cheapest, but if it’s something you only buy once, it probably ends up being more economical to pay a little more. Sounds like you’ve got a nice arrangement there.

      You bring up another good point, that a lot of these shops tend to be highly specialized in what they make. Some just do wood parts that later are assembled into the finished product. Or some Amish specialize in applying the furniture finish and nothing else. There are of course those that do it all, but I think the simplicity and cost efficiency factors of doing just one or a handful of things, very well, appeals to typical Amish sensibilities.

    11. Adrienne

      I will be traveling to Amish Country Friday. Does anyone know of an amish furniture builder I can go to directly? I would like to order a dining table/chairs set, but do not want to pay the very high mark up prices that some of the stores have it priced at. Thanks I appreciate it!

    12. Bill

      Adrienne, Look for signs along the side of the road that advertise what’s for sale. Drive the backroads. If you can’t find a furniture maker, stop at any Amish run shop or roadside stand and ask where you might find one. Good Luck!

    13. Pingback: The Amish of Mechanicsville, Maryland | Amish America
    14. Chika

      "Amish"

      Amish Blueberry Pie….makes me smile….I’ll take my Amish Blueberry Pie with a scoop of Presbyterian Vanilla Ice Cream and nice cold glass of Catholic Milk or perhaps a cup of Jewish Tea.

    15. Fran

      Salud

      Salud y larga vída a vuestro ueblo desde España.

    16. Regina

      Amish Market in New York City

      The so-called “Amish Market” in New York City is not a real Amish Market; it sells European-style foods and is staffed by immigrants, I think Russian. They used the word Amish in their name to bring in customers.

    17. Bi8ll Rushby

      Amish Kittens

      I read (perhaps in the Budget) about an Amish lady who put up a sign at the road, offering free kittens. No one inquired.

      She changed it to “free Amish kittens”, and the kittens went like hot cakes!

    18. Linda Bly Hoad

      Arizona Furniture Store

      Hello, I enjoyed your writing and information about the Amish. The Amish hold a special place in my heart. I would like to know where the Amish furniture store is in Arizona. That would be another place for me to check out. Thank you. Linda

    19. Mary

      Marketing the Amish

      Like the sign I saw in Holmes County that said “Amish Kittens for sale”.
      I wasn’t sure it the kittens were dressed in Kapp’s, or what to expect!