The Evolution of Agrimarketing
It seems that for agriculture, change has been the status quo for some time. Big 5 merger activity to smaller-scale upheavals, companies of all sizes are bending under the pressure, forced to abandon their old ways to satiate the needs of evolving consumer, market and grower demands. While the industry has never been a stranger to change, it seems increasingly certain that we are currently in the greatest state of evolution — maybe even revolution — that ag has ever faced.
At Think Shift, we believe ag’s current state creates an opportunity: For the brands willing to dive head-first into the new reality, to make wholesale shifts in the way they operate and abandon “the way things are” in favor of leaning into change, there exists a chance to differentiate and shape the curve, rather than merely keeping up.
In this piece, we’ll speak to the rapid change our industry faces and the key trends that will shape the future of agrimarketing. This includes the potential forms of disruption that will challenge and alter our industry, the larger shifts in sales and marketing that we need to understand and ultimately champion, how companies navigate in the shift from traditional to digital practices and how corporate culture is becoming more important than ever in a landscape of continued consolidation.
We’ll begin with some of the largest and most disruptive trends taking place in the ag industry. We call these “industry disruptors,” as they affect more than a single or specific area of ag and generally leave a lasting mark on the industry for years to come.
For each of these, there is no easy agrimarketing solution, especially given the fact that what worked in the past may not solve these issues going forward. We recommend agrimarketers open themselves to new strategies and ways of thinking to address these issues, rather than looking for tactical fixes, as many of these trends aren’t “fixable.”
Major shifts in consumer demands (e.g. increasing demand for alternative proteins) and trade markets are making it more obvious than ever that the next five to 10 years in ag aren’t going to look like the last. This has caused organizations, associations and farmers to finally embrace a “what got us here won’t get us there” mindset. Consequently, leaders and marketers are now working to redefine why and how their companies and their brands matter to this new type of consumer. Ultimately, the new challenge for many of these brands will be defining and protecting their brand’s relevance, versus generating and maintaining brand and product awareness.
Consumer trust is at an all-time low. Concerns about GMOs, food transparency, animal proteins and other similar issues are having a significant impact on consumer demand and the markets. Unfortunately, for some time now, ag’s attempted “fix” for these growing concerns has been to leverage a “we feed the world” message that risks sounding self-serving and defensive (imagine telling your partner how much they depend on you as a means of trying to get out of the proverbial doghouse). At the end of the day, ag needs to find new ways to earn trust back versus trying to elicit consumer trust through corporate messaging.
Recently, the input innovation pipeline and product lifecycle have experienced a slowdown, due in large part to longer and more difficult research and development and market approval processes. This, in turn, has caused innovations in traditional ag products and services to become less transformative and revolutionary than they once were (e.g. open pollinated to hybrid corn). For agrimarketers, this means managing more iterative and evolutionary brands, with less differentiation between generations (like the difference between iPhone 7 and iPhone 8) and increasing similarity between competitive offerings (like the iPhone X vs. the Samsung Galaxy 10).
Year over year, consumers continue to gain more power over their purchasing decisions, and have made known their desire for greater food traceability and transparency. This puts pressure on ag organizations to more quickly adjust to changing consumer demand and to be open and honest about stewardship, sustainability and traceability efforts. In many cases, this means communicating more freely and openly with the public than ever before, even when the message isn’t positive, and accepting or even adopting demand changes rather than fighting against them.
While the industry is facing a spate of new challenges, the good news is that innovation and automation continue to add new and vastly smarter weapons into your marketing arsenal. These tools can deliver truly transformative results, and while it can be tempting to sample them all, it’s important to remember that moderation is key. Identify the trends that seem to work best for your business, and start small — otherwise, you risk spreading efforts across too many tactics, initiatives and innovations to be effective at any single one.
Agrimarketers are beginning to follow the trend set by our non-ag brethren. Recognizing that external research is not the only (or even the best) source of customer and market insight, agrimarketers are becoming much more intentional about collecting, mining, analyzing and activating decisions (including automated behaviors) based on data.
With this trend comes a better understanding that customer data has use well beyond the sales ledger (tracking lapsed, repeat or growing/declining customer purchases). In fact, it’s now part of an interconnected web of multiple digital and physical touchpoints, all feeding into a central customer and non-customer database that can reveal detailed information about how both customers and non-customers are engaging with your digital and physical touchpoints (i.e. tracking how a lapsed corn customer read content on two websites, used an app, forwarded an email and visited a tradeshow booth).
By capturing and analyzing this data, agrimarketers can track campaign ROI more precisely, optimize existing campaigns, and use their learnings to more effectively engage their target audience in future campaigns.
As time goes on, ag organizations will continue to see declining return on investment from traditional “boots on the ground” sales efforts and will be forced to re-engineer their sales and marketing processes. These reengineered approaches will rely more on the use of modern technologies like Salesforce, Outreach and Hubspot, and new disciplines, such as inbound marketing, to generate and convert sustainable prospects, leads, and sales.
In turn, this shift will require greater alignment between sales and marketing teams (in some cases having the two become one), where both work on a real-time “sales funnel” of shared active, qualified leads and customers. Ultimately, this will require agrimarketers to act more like salespeople (using valuable content and physical/digital touchpoints to nurture leads and customers through the funnel) and salespeople to act more like agrimarketers (adding new leads into the top of the funnel through social-selling activities on sites like LinkedIn).
Past industrial revolutions have favored organizations that can gain access to infrastructure (i.e. Henry Ford), capital (i.e. GE) and intellectual property (i.e. Sony). However, the leveling of the playfield in all of these areas (especially intellectual property) has meant a shift to a new battlefield: branding.
As ag organizations shift out of the commoditization mindset, they will find that their branding — how they present themselves to the market — is their greatest competitive and differentiating asset. In turn, this will create a greater reliance on agrimarketers to protect, preserve and enhance the value of their brand as a means of gaining and maintaining competitive advantage.
Though we believe it’s only a matter of time, there is still a great deal of speculation around whether e-commerce will make a true impact in traditional ag. However, many of the trends that are driving agridigital best practices stem from e-commerce-based thinking. So for agrimarketers looking to improve their digital return on investments, it’s time to embrace the pre-commerce mindset, which underlies most of the following agridigital trends:
As the ag industry fully embraced all things digital, much of the last 3-5 years has seen a major focus on the development of digital properties and touchpoints, ranging from websites to apps to tools to content (both written and video). Unfortunately, this deep dive into asset development has yielded an unintended consequence for many organizations: large, unconnected and ineffective digital ecosystems comprised of dozens of different digital touchpoints aimed at the same audience.
For instance, consider a brand that has developed a corporate site, a country site, a product micro-site, an agronomy tool and a branded social channel, all pushing the same product at the same audience. From the user standpoint, this can understandably create a great deal of confusion. To simplify things for the end user, agrimarketers are now turning their focus to a “less is more” digital approach, where properties are being culled from their portfolios with improved user experience being the new goal.
Stemming from the desire to improve user experience, agrimarketers have also noticed the “if you build it, they will come” philosophy doesn’t apply to agridigital. Because ag audiences are already familiar with digital touchpoints from non-ag brands, they are more discerning of what constitutes for good and bad digital content. As a result, agrimarketers will continually need to find ways to provide relevant, high-quality content to their users if they are going to be able to earn the engagement levels they desire.
Like many industries before us, ag will begin to embrace a “growth driven development” mindset, favoring iterative improvements over the wholesale replacement of digital touchpoints. This means that agrimarketers must keep the following in mind:
As agrimarketers embrace their role as stewards of the sales funnel, digital conversion metrics like Marketing Qualified Leads (MQLs), Sales Qualified Leads (SQLs), and Leads to Opportunities to Sales will and should continue to replace old performance metrics, such as traffic, time on site and page views. This also means that agrimarketers must lean into sales engagement platforms like Salesforce, Outreach and Hubspot, which have traditionally been under the purview of IT and sales departments.
We believe that agrimarketers who do lean in will benefit from these platforms’ consistent introduction of new features. Specifically, you may benefit from the ability to add automation to digital communications streams, such as using built-in A/B testing that automatically measures engagement and leverages the best-performing content, saving you time while iteratively improving performance.
At Think Shift, we believe an organization’s culture is the biggest driver of their brand. While the act of intentionally defining corporate culture is the responsibility of the executive team, agrimarketers also play a critical role: they are the ones who leverage their company culture to bring their brands to life through every physical and virtual touchpoint. To this extent, it’s important for agrimarketers to understand some of the biggest trends in the world of “agri-culture,” including:
The slew of mergers and acquisitions over the last 2-3 years are now being operationalized on the front lines, making cultural alignments or misalignments more visible to customers and employees alike. As a result, while brands that prioritize their culture will foster positive brand associations by delivering consistent, positive experiences to their target audience, brands that fail to define and live out their new culture will struggle to do so.
Tight markets, volatile commodity prices, trade disputes and poor weather conditions continue to put pressure on ag organizations to “right size” as a means of keeping costs in line with lower sales and profits. This forced reliance on “fewer people to produce greater results” has amplified the competition for the best talent, as well as the desire to maintain increased levels of discretionary effort; two calling cards of a workforce that is highly engaged in and motivated by a strong corporate culture.
New start-ups like Indigo Ag are starting to challenge preconceived notions of what an ag organization’s culture can and should look like by adopting Silicon Valley-like work environments and modern talent retention and engagement strategies to attract young talent away from some of the more traditional and bureaucratic ag mainstays. This means that being big (and now even bigger) doesn’t spell success in owning one’s unfair share of the market’s great talent — if your culture is lacking, it’s increasingly likely that your current and potential employees will notice.
New ag start-ups in the early stages of their growth cycle are also feeling cultural stress, as they struggle to turn the proverbial corner from being research-driven, capitally funded organizations to a sales-driven, revenue-sustainable ones. These start-ups are heavily staffed by scientists, engineers, researchers and academics, leading to a deficit of sales knowledge and resources. To help turn the corner towards profitability, many will begin adding key sales and marketing personnel with much different performance mindsets and cultural desires. This will create internal cultural conflict until these organizations can find ways to get all parties engaged in a single culture that matters to both.
The generational divide between “old guard” leaders (Boomers) and younger front-line workers (Millennials and Gen Y) is creating greater disconnect between the decisions being made in the C-suite and the actions being taken in the field. This also puts pressure on the smaller population of middle-aged, mid-to upper management (Gen X), who don’t want to spoil relationships with neither the Boomers they are set to replace nor the Millennials they will assume leadership of. This has created an environment where internal communication management is critical, and many organizations are shifting to an approach of communicating early and often (and transparently) so as to avoid misinformation and misalignment.
While the constant barrage of industry challenges, marketing innovations, and broad-spectrum change may feel daunting, remember — you are not alone.
With the right colleagues and agency (or agencies) by your side, you should feel like each of the above trends present an opportunity to explore new potential, to stand out from the competition and to hone your craft as a progressive agrimarketer. By remaining cognizant of industry trends and being willing to lean into and grow with change, rather than holding fast to old, tired habits, you can steer your brand into a brighter future.
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