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Five ways ag can start winning the fight over technology

When Tyson Fresh Meats sent notice to its cattle feeders in early August it would no longer purchase cattle fed the feed additive Zilmax, the headlines heralded, activists suspected, feeders recalculated, markets fluctuated and PR therapists counseled. The result: Another high-tech production tool expunged from the market while all parties weighed in with no-fault claims.

  • Tyson said it wasn't sure of the exact cause for increased lameness it was experiencing in cattle it received, but turned to animal health experts who suggested Zilmax.
  • Merck (formerly Intervet/Schering Plough), makers of Zilmax, said it stood behind its 30-plus years of rigorous R&D testing. Three days later, Merck "suspended" sales of Zilmax while it recommitted, reinforced and recertified.
  • National Cattlemen's Beef Association CEO Forrest Roberts said he believed in the right of farmers to responsibly use FDA-approved technologies but also believed in Tyson's right to make individual business decisions.
What might be drowned out amidst this shuffle is the deafening rhyme of history and the implications for farmers and those responsible for developing and communicating technological products within our modern food system. 

    Let's face it: The food system is only going to become more technological in its quest to feed the world. Ask any farmer how he's become so prolific in producing food using less land and fewer animals than at any time in human history and he'll likely respond "the adoption of technology." Yet the food industry infrastructure is at an odd place, poised to meet the food needs of 9 billion people by 2050, yet at the same time enduring and even provoking market turbulence for the same high-tech products designed to enable their success.

    Therefore, the following five communication lessons are offered for any food chain member who wants to stop losing technological marketing battles and start winning through sound communication.

    Zilmax lesson 1Hire and commit to food-chain communicators

    In traditional businesses certain roles are commonplace—marketing, public relations, product management, technical service, lobbying, industry affairs and sales. A food-chain communicator, however, is a hybrid of all of these. His job is to communicate within the industry infrastructure. This means identifying and reaching out to all the people between his company (the manufacturer) and the end consumer who have an influence on the buying process. This chain of people includes not only those who directly touch his product on its path to the consumer, but also opinion leaders who, by simply holding an opinion about his product or service, influence its acceptance in the marketplace.

    Hiring a person in this unconventional role will require bold leadership, vision and commitment. Unlike the long accepted and traditional positions dotting many corporate structures, food-chain communicators will be novel additions and thus skeptically viewed and skeptically measured for their impact on the bottom line.

    It's easy to see a good food chain communicator's worth in retrospect. One need only measure the loss in sales volume for Zilmax ($159 million in 2012) or the loss in production farmers might have otherwise realized through use of this product.

    But, even more importantly and more costly to the food system is the diminishing level of trust consumers must feel when they hear of a product which has passed through government approval, been on the market for years, used in food production and yet recalled by market forces.

    In the future, food chain communicators could be there to help vanquish fears from the food system not by simply selling a product but by bolstering the technology that often accompanies progress.

    When hiring and committing to a food chain communicator remember these Dos and Don'ts:

    DO engage food chain communicators early in a high-tech product's lifecycle.

    In old business models, communication personnel were only introduced to a product post-approval. This is far too late for high-tech food system products today since they require a sustained effort to soften and educate the market for easier access and ultimately for quicker and uninterrupted brand adoption.

    DON'T try to retrofit a food chain communicator into an existing role.

    A food chain communicator is not simply another salesman or government lobbyist to add to the payroll. To treat him as such impoverishes the role and ultimately leaves companies vulnerable, because food chain communicators will be hindered from navigating the entire food chain. For example, many agricultural companies focus solely on the packer, yet if a food chain communicator directs his whole effort towards one audience segment he'll end up compromising the rest of the infrastructure and missing out on relationships he otherwise might have built.

    Zilmax lesson 2

    Don't be seduced by talk of 'reaching the consumer'

    Once a food-chain communicator is hired and begins outlining the industry infrastructure there is a great seductress known as the consumer. The magnetic attraction of the consumer is undeniable. After all, the whole food system begins with, is fueled by and ends with the consumer. So why not just cut to the chase, hurry down chain and explain your product's scientific benefits to the end consumer, by-passing the rest of the industry infrastructure?

    The answer is manifold.

    • Most companies do not have budgets large enough to target the consumer, even if they segmented the consumer by characteristics such as income, sex, age, primary shopper, etc. In addition, your message would need to be educational, and, according to Harris Interactive, most consumers do not view themselves as "scientifically savvy." Therefore, your message would not only require multiple impressions (i.e. more money) but patience in order to achieve its desired impact (i.e. more time).
    • Media fragmentation makes it increasingly difficult to reach the consumer. According to Peter Sealy, adjunct professor at UC Berkley and former head of global marketing for Coca-Cola, in 1965, Proctor & Gamble could successfully reach 80 percent of its primary target audience (18- to 49 year-old women) by purchasing just three 60-second commercials aired during primetime on the three TV networks. Today, accomplishing that same goal in our cluttered and fragmented media world would require 97 primetime commercials.
    • While the consumer is king, they rely on influentials. Influentials are just that, people of influence. They actively seek out information to form their own opinion and then openly share their opinion with others. Nowhere is this more acute than in our food system. Influentials tell others what products are "healthy" or "good" but they also can validate or override conclusions consumers might have arrived at on their own. If a company neglects to identify and inform key influencers in favor of a consumer-only marketing push then when a consumer seeks validation for an opinion or purchase decision and they don't find it, doubt creeps in.
    • Missing any level of the infrastructure can cause collapse. The industry infrastructure has many layers and many powerful opinion leaders. Each layer can validate or challenge another layer's conclusions. When one level of the industry infrastructure is not communicated with, it endangers the integrity of the entire structure risking ultimate collapse.

    So, even though the consumer is king, a strategic approach to the food system is both wise and ultimately cost saving.

    Zilmax lesson 3

    Communicate inside-out (company first, industry first)

    When a high tech product is approved everyone is excited about its roll-out. In their exuberance, communicators often forget to equip their closest and potentially greatest allies -- their employees and their own industry.

    Here are two examples:

    I once consulted for a large animal health company poised to introduce a high tech product slated to revolutionize animal care and handling. When I asked the marketing person if they had communicated their product and its benefits within their own employee ranks she sternly retorted, "˜We don't do that!"

    When I asked why, she said, "We're a small cog in a big wheel. While we seem big, compared to our human health side, we're nothing. The people on our human health side could care a less about our latest technological innovation." As I looked around the room I saw executives nodding in unanimous agreement. I thought for a moment but then responded, "If you can't convince your own corporate colleagues who share a financial stake in the same company, how are you going to convince anyone else?"

    For those involved in the debate over the use of antibiotics in food animal production this should cut to the quick. Imagine how the discussion might flow today if every animal health company offering antibiotics would have invested in internal communications with their human health counterparts. Not only could they have averted or at least exposed the nonsensical labels proliferating in the meat case today but perhaps they could have built strong enough relationships where subsequent accusations leveled against animal agriculture wouldn't have been so readily believed.

    Another prime example is that of Monsanto and its food service company in the United Kingdom. In 1999, Grenada Food Services posted a sign in Monsanto's cafeteria located in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, announcing it was seeking to eliminate genetically modified soya and maize from its food offerings. Although this was spun in the media to be attributed to a Monsanto employee uprising over concerns for genetically modified organisms, one has to wonder why a supplier so intimately tied to Monsanto's everyday business was overlooked in its quest to inform and equip the world about the benefits of GMOs. This gave the appearance that even those conducting business with Monsanto were arrayed against their technology.

    In both cases, communication didn't flow from the inside-out. It bypassed fellow employees and vendors/suppliers who are likely rooting for your company's success since their prosperity is interwoven with yours. The good news about reaching these audiences is it's usually inexpensive and simply requires effort.

    Zilmax lesson 4

    Beware of Industry Trickle

    Once a high tech product is introduced, purchased and even accepted by its target audience, a food-chain communicator's job is just getting started. He must constantly patrol the food industry infrastructure answering inquiries and quelling potential concerns. Any concern left unanswered can turn a trickle into a torrent.

    In the case of rbST, the product was approved in 1993 and went on sale in 1994.

    Ten years later, in 2003, the market began its own form of product recall when Dean's Foods started labeling their milk jugs with the phrase, "Our Farmer's Pledge: No Artificial Growth Hormones." This phenomenon continues to this very day with companies like the Hyatt Regency being the latest to offer "hormone-free milk."

    In the case of Zilmax the market collapsed faster than you can say "beta-agonist." Zilmax was approved in 2006 and went on sale in the United States 2007. Although the product experienced concerns throughout its life cycle its market share and brand adoption continued to increase each year. However, on August 7, 2013 Tyson informed its cattle feeders it would no longer accept cattle fed Zilmax.

    It took only 12 days for Cargill, JBS USA and National Beef Packing to all follow suit.

    The concerns over Zilmax never fully dissipated and when an individual clearly identified as an "influential" began voicing concern, Zilmax, like rbST before it, became an easy target.

    While it is disturbing how quickly food companies mimic each other in their animal welfare stances, a food chain communicator needs to anticipate this type of market turbulence and build in a crisis communications plan from the outset. Once a trickle becomes a torrent and companies start piling on with me-too claims no amount of "recommitting and recertifying" can revive a brand.

    Zilmax lesson 5

    Stop over-pursuing and overselling sustainability

    At the core of sustainability is something right: a call to stewardship, to care for animals or the planet in a way that enables future generations. Inevitably though, and almost universally, sustainability advocates defer to a definition of sustainability known as the Triple Bottom Line. This is where a company or product is measured for its impact on the social, environmental and economic bottom lines. The problem with this definition is it's laced with political ideology and always provides activists room for accusation. In addition, while it's easy to agree and measure the economic bottom line of a company hence the term "bottom line," one can not conclude with the same finite accuracy the environmental or the social bottom line of a company.

    Take for example the now controversial use of gestation crates.

    Gestation crates are made of solid medal rod or tube construction and can last 20, 30 or even 40 years before needing to be replaced. When they are replaced, the metal is scrapped or used in another manufacturer's product. The original intent of using gestation crates was for better economic gain, individual animal care and feed efficiency among other benefits. This all sounds sustainable and history has proven them to be successful tools in achieving these goals. Yet, when McDonald's announced it was demanding pork farmers eliminate gestation crates, McDonald's claimed they were "unsustainable:"

    "McDonald's believes gestation stalls are not a sustainable production system for the future"¦said Dan Gorsky senior vice president of McDonald's North America Supply Chain Management."

    So even when a product has a proven track record of sustainability or has scientists rushing to its aid carrying reams of data displaying sustainability status, it has done little to dissuade activists and others from positioning them as hopelessly and irretrievably unsustainable.

    Therefore the clear warning for high tech communicators is to stop writhing to prove your sustainability status as if to do so will quiet all criticism. It won't!