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Direct-to-consumer image advertising fails. A better way

True stories:

  • After passing a half-dozen too many times beneath the 4-foot-tall red-on-black banner that hangs over my favorite local grocer’s meatcase – OUR BEEF CONTAINS NO CARBON MONOXIDE -- I finally ran down the store manager, a personal friend, and asked him what he thought he was really accomplishing. “Oh,” he looked up as if actually reading it for the first time, “we’re scaring our customers, aren’t we?”

  • The waitress at the chain restaurant in Columbia, Mo., (a nutrition student, as it turns out, at the state’s largest ag school in the middle of the nation’s second-largest beef cow herd) warns my Truth in Food colleague Mike Smith off ordering his burger medium rare. Why? “I just worry a little about all the parasites that are in the ground beef today,” she whispers.

  • Shortly after several retail chains pronounced they planned to quit buying milk produced using the recombinant growth hormone rBSt, one angry owner of a large dairy volunteered to me that he was ready, then and there, to “go down to my town’s Wal-Mart, find the store manager and let him know just what a jack-assed decision that was.” When I pressed the group of fellow farmers around him about the last time any had personally interacted with a grocery retailer—about anything, good or bad—the short answer was for many it had been years; for some, decades (if at all).

This is what you call a broken chain. Three examples of one important reason – if not the most important reason – why agriculture today is losing the battle for public perception and wasting valuable checkoff funds, resources, time and opportunity in convincing the consumer that modern farmers can be trusted to feed them. 

Preying on fear

You’ve often heard the phrase “food-chain.” But what does it mean?

12-by-12-spacer 'Agriculture today is losing the battle for public perception, even as it wastes valuable resources convincing consumers farmers can be trusted to feed them'

Visualize this food-chain, and suddenly you see groups of people working together in order to respond to consumer demand. Farmers, input suppliers, veterinarians, packers, processors, wholesalers, retailers, restaurateurs are all links within the modern food production system. All share the same goal of serving the all-powerful consumer.

Over the last 50 years, that food-chain has grown. It contains more links than ever before. The distance between the farmer who grows our food and the one who consumes it ever widens, creating a “separation anxiety,” in which consumers, three to four generations removed from ties to a farm, are unfamiliar with farmers. But remember there’s a flip side to that separation, as well: The farmer, too, has become removed from the consumer. He now relies on a host of food-chain players to serve as his proxy to the consumer, explaining what he does, and why.

Too often, information exchange along the links of that chain gets stretched thin. In the late 1990s, a Phillip Morris study revealed that each person within the pork food chain tended to speak only to those he sold directly to. Beyond that point, all communication ceased. Absent that communication, those proxies within the chain are open to messages that, like that game you played in kindergarten passing a whispered message down a line only to find by the end it bore no resemblance to the original, get changed between the farmer and the grocer. That breakdown ultimately hurts both.

“I have been trying for 20 years to connect farmers and grocers,” Ohio Grocers Association CEO Tom Jackson told me as, ironically, we were on our way to a meeting with Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan to hear about the then-new Know your Farmer Know Your Food program, designed to do what? Help small farmers bypass all the links in the chain and sell directly to consumers. “Grocers today want a partner to help them communicate farmers to the consumer.”

Absent those strong partnerships, the food chain remains intact, but weak links make the chain susceptible.

Susceptible to what? Misinformation and mistrust.

Instead of a well-oiled chain functioning together in order to respond to and serve consumer needs, the chain begins resembling nature’s food chain, a web of organisms that cannibalize each other in predator-prey relationships. In the modern food system, this environment gives rise to marketing communications that chase people to a company’s brand by evoking fear. For instance:

Boars' Head Ham doesn't use all those chemicals and 'who knows what else' that go into all the other ham out there. What is 'Food with Integrity?' asks chain restaurant Chipotle Mexican Grill. Obviously it's not what most farmers grow. Click here for more. If you're not organic, says the Organic Consumers Association, then you're 'socially irresponsible.' Click here to find out why.
12-by-12-spacer 'Instead of functioning together to serve consumer needs, the chain begins to resemble nature's food chain of predator-prey relationships'

Farmers as a whole tend to take these campaigns much like my friend the dairy farmer who was intent on seizing his Wal-Mart manager by the lapels and explaining why predatory “hormone-free” milk marketing represented both a business hardship to him and a personal insult. The problem is, those farmers’ promotional boards and their agencies have tended to fail to channel that resentment into an effective response. Too often, that response takes the form of well-produced, often stunningly beautiful image campaigns directed at the consumer, reassuring them farmers are real people, with strong family values, who do a great job feeding them three times each day. But these image campaigns will ultimately show little to no real results, for two not unrelated reasons.

Not your father's food chain

First, going direct to the consumer is an immense and costly initiative. The simple global magnitude of the food chain today is dizzying:

  • In 1950, 5.4 million farms produced food for 152 million people in the United States and 2.5 billion people worldwide. Today 2.2 million farms (60 percent fewer) produce food for 310 million people in the United States (51 percent more) and 7 billion people worldwide (65 percent more).
  • Farming and our U. S. food system now accounts for 20 percent of our nation’s GDP, about $3 trillion of the $14 trillion total. In fact, our farming and food system output alone is higher than the total GDPs of Russia, France, Germany, Italy, Canada or India just to name a few. Its value is greater than over half the total GDP from China, despite China having four times the population of the United States!
  • The growth of U.S. agricultural exports in the last 40 years has burgeoned from $6 billion to over $115 billion. From 1998 to 2008 alone agricultural exports doubled from $52 billion to $115 billion.

This is not the same food chain your parents grew up with. Obviously, any consumer directed campaign has a lot of consumers to reach, both domestic and abroad. But that’s only half the bad news. Effective direct-to-consumer campaigns will also stretch agriculture thin because the media environment today has so changed that you not only have a larger audience to reach, but you have less effective means to do it.

One telling example: 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 would require 97 primetime commercials.

12-by-12-spacer 'Even if agriculture forms a coalition to target consumers and effectively funds it, a great deal of leg work remains within the chain before any consumer messaging begins'

To influence the consumer you must have deep pockets and a world-wide reach that, frankly, will rapidly drain even the promotional coffers currently made flush by $6.50 corn and $14 beans. The 310 million people in the United States, soon to become 400 million, and 7 billion people soon to become 9.6 billion worldwide will require incredibly well-funded and sustainedmedia exposure over a period of time, if agriculture’s to make any impact on the ultimate goal of cementing positive consumer attitudes and provoking change in attitude or purchasing behavior. One-and-done media exposures that demand little more in results than counting impressions or web visits risk turning into nothing but checkoff donations to a media that ultimately revels in your demise.

With all that said, there’s an even more important reason consumer-focused farmer image campaigns will ultimately fail. They ignore the DNA of the food-chain. End-around, direct-to-consumer messages purposefully disregard the chain’s interconnectedness, bypass the powerful links within the food chain and waste all the great opportunities within it. Even if agriculture formed a coalition to target consumers and then attributed reasonable dollars to fund it, a great deal of leg work remains to be done within the chain before consumer messaging can begin.

AN Intel-igent alternative

In this lesson, agriculture can learn from the most successful computer micro-processing company of our age. In 1991, Intel embarked on an ambitious marketing campaign to endear consumers to its microprocessor, the “brain” that makes your personal computer work. Intel’s goal was to motivate the consumer to inquire “Is Intel Inside?” Computer industry experts roundly criticized Intel, arguing the campaign was doomed to fail because the consumer doesn’t know -- nor care -- what a microprocessor is. But what wasn’t obvious about the advertising campaign was that the real work was performed long before the consumer campaign ever took shape. Intel salespeople actively informed and equipped the computer industry infrastructure--the chain of people who would be answering the consumers’ inquiry about what is a microprocessor, and why should I care. Intel strategically and purposefully provided Best Buy, Radio Shack and other computer sellers all the information they needed to explain to the end consumer exactly why Intel made a difference in the way a computer ran. Rather than focus directly on building awareness with the consumer alone, Intel recognized the valuable and necessary role of those who would be interfacing with the computer buyer daily, equipped them with deep information to answer consumer questions, and ultimately turned them into true examples of that holy grail of marketing, the message multiplier.

12-by-12-spacer 'Failing to focus on this type of chain re-connecting is one of the top intangible threats to businesses today'

Failing to focus on precisely this type of chain re-connecting is one of the top threats to businesses today, says marketing guru and author of the classic Relationship Marketing, Regis McKenna. McKenna tells Truth in Food businesses that miss, misunderstand and abuse the natural links in their “industry infrastructure” face a much greater intangible risk to their success than any named competitor poses, and not handling such intangible risks with skill is the primary reason seemingly well-built marketing plans fail.

“When I built these infrastructures back many years ago,” McKenna told me in a recent interview, “what we would do is educate the educator. We would educate the distributors, the dealers—training throughout the chain. Every contact point along the way is important to have that level educated.

“Consumers don’t talk to farmers. But they do talk to retailers,” McKenna said. Educate the entire infrastructure with the viewpoint you want consumers to hear, and the marketplace itself becomes the authoritative and trustworthy voice with the consumer.

Listen to Kevin Murphy discuss broken chains with author Regis McKenna:

Broken Chains with Regis McKenna

Agriculture, like Intel, faces the same opportunity – and risk – within its own industry infrastructure. Like computer stores, grocery stores and restaurants form the front line where consumers most often come in contact with your product, where questions about those products and the process that creates them typically arise, and where the decision to buy or not buy is made. Image and awareness advertising campaigns can be instantly undone by a grocer who is hostile to modern technology – even one who is only ambivalent or confused. When The Daily Meal published a list of the most powerful people in food using the criterion of: Can this person, whether by dint of corporate position, media access, moral authority, or sheer personality, substantially change, improve, and/or degrade the quality and variety of the American diet or the way we think about it? Chefs and restaurateurs were the largest category of influencers. As Intel learned in its experience, since these two outlets (grocers and restaurants) enjoy coveted daily contact with the consumer, it is critical they have the information at hand you want them to have in order to answer those questions – immediately, without doubt and convincingly. These all-important members of farming’s industry infrastructure must know what modern farming is doing and why. If not, misinformation and mistrust will continue to rule.

And, oh yeah, the message

As the dairy farmer angered by Wal-Mart illustrates, it’s obvious that perceived attacks on modern farming often engender great passion. But while agriculture’s advocates run to the battlefield ready to defend our modern food production system, they often do so unaccompanied by strategy. Their heart is in the right place, but engaging in tactics without strategy is what Sun Tzu called “simply the noise before defeat.” (Predicting the often meaningless din of today’s Social Media)

How can agriculture’s advocates match their verve with stratagem, to develop a penetrating message?

The answer: By first viewing modern agriculture as a brand.

It’s ironic that agriculture needs a refresher course on branding, since farmers arguably invented the process thousands of years ago, when they routinely marked livestock not only to denote ownership but also for differentiation and quality assurance to prospective buyers.

The problem is that throughout the years, agriculture became seduced by the tangible manifestations of its brand; that is, farmers now define themselves by the products they produce. This is marketing’s cardinal sin. Just as the railroads went from owning a market to near extinction within a century because they forgot their brand was not about laying steel track, but about the business of moving things and people, farmers risk making themselves dispensable if they forget the essence of their own brand.

The American Agriculture Brand is much greater than the physical, tangible products farmers produce. Agriculture is much more than corn, soybeans, beef, milk, eggs, and more. Brand Agriculture is trust, comfort, family, security, independence, rugged individualism, co-creators, faith and communion, just to give a morsel of its essence. To think of it in any lesser terms is to impoverish it. This is why a previous Truth in Food posting, Losing the War of Words, urged agriculture to get back to using the term Farmer rather than Producer.

…it’s important to realize American farmers, small and big, never gave away such priceless equity in anything as they did when they collaborated in their rebranding, away from farmer and into producer. The average person understands the word farmer in almost a universal image, drawing on a reservoir of good will derived from the word…Meanwhile, the farmer’s use of “producer” restricts the flow of positive images and intimates that the value of a farmer runs only as deep as what he or she is capable of producing.

Agricultural marketing’s brightest minds must expand to absorb the broader view of agriculture as a brand. Doing so provides the platform to deliver a more potent, lingering message. But make no mistake. Re-aquainting consumers with the real underlying brand experience of modern agriculture is a far cry from the current trend toward beautiful-sunrises-over-grain-bins farmer image awareness ads. There’s a better way to strengthen the Agriculture Brand.

Called out of awareness

While almost everything has changed around agriculture (farmers, seeds, technology, corporations, distribution channels, issues, etc.) the way agriculture is communicated to the world has not changed. Those responsible for promotion of agriculture still rely on antiquated “awareness” strategies. While this may enable you to claim a high percentage of consumers who are aware of you, it does nothing to measure how those same consumers feel about you. This is a key difference and really the question of the day. Consumers know farmers feed them. What they don’t know is how they’re feeding them. So while agriculture is stuck in awareness-only efforts, activists have advanced to the stage of providing information and turned this stage into their personal playground, telling stories about how certain products and processes are more pristine, all the while indicting the big, bad, industrial alternative.

Stuck at the Awareness Stage? The risk agriculture faces when it attempts to market directly to consumers is illustrated by our Seven Steps to Brand Preference ladder. In any natural marketing process, consumers progress through seven steps before adopting a brand. When farm organizations and coalitions insist on targeting the giant consumer audience, they rarely – if ever – can fund communication beyond awareness building campaigns. Yet the very issues that threaten modern food production today can only be overcome by moving up the ladder, by providing information that gives consumers reason to believe in farmers. In other words, consumers already are aware that farmers feed us; what they now need in order to accept the brand is more detailed information about how and why farmers do what they do. Such detailed information can best be supplied by equipping advocates in the chain to convey that message on farmers’ behalf, thus leveraging our limited resources.

This should summon agriculture to a more mature message, one that is not always rewarded with immediate gratification, but rather viewed as an educational and relational process. At some point, all brands move to the “providing information” stage. It’s here that consumers receive useful information that not only propels them to the next phase of brand adoption but strengthens any bonds they have with agriculture and giving them reasons to believe its claims.

If they are already supporters of agriculture, and the overwhelming majority of consumers are, it’s in this stage their choice is confirmed. By advancing out of awareness and into providing information at the key moment of inquiry/concern, any consumer who ventures down the staired process is escorted right back up to the pinnacle of brand preference and adoption.



+2 # Rex Peterson 2011-03-11 15:38
There are lots of brands in ag, and the big brand is fuzzy. The little brands like "organic", "natural", "local", etc. set themselves apart by being different than the big brand. And in doing so, imply or state that the main brand has problems in some way. Some of the resulting claims are true, some false, some misleading, all damaging by inflicting a thousand cuts and rubs. Best practices agriculture has been in a defensive battle.

Another good comparison would be coca cola and the new coke disaster resulting in classic coke. Like Coke, Best practices agriculture has been in Brand Preference adoption position on your chart and is losing market share slowly to the thousand cuts and the thousand cuts are getting free press and government support.

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