Seven Trends for 2020 & Beyond
What is Agrimarketing?
Agrimarketing is the discipline of creating, positioning, promoting, selling and fulfilling brand, product or service offerings to entities involved in the practice of farming and/or food production.
In agriculture, change has become the status quo. From the Big 5 merger activities to increasing numbers of new business start-ups and ag tech innovations to industry-wide consolidation, companies of all sizes are responding to the pressure, forced to abandon their old ways to satiate the needs of evolving consumer, market and grower demands.
At Think Shift, we believe ag’s current state creates an opportunity to lean into change; to differentiate and shape the curve, rather than merely keep 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:
It’s What’s Inside That Matters
When brand and culture don’t align, there is a significant dissonance between what a company says and what they do. Today, consumers can see into an organization more easily than ever before. This means that they can see your culture in action, and even call out the brand promises your culture can’t keep.
Trying to build a brand on a weak cultural foundation is a recipe for failure, and we've seen this not just in ag, but industries far and wide. Today's consumers are already skeptical. As agrimarketers (and consumers ourselves) we know just how cautious we can be of the messages we’re served on a near second-by-second basis.
When your culture isn’t as “friendly” as your brand says it is.
We no longer accept brands at face value; we must experience them first. And with that experience, especially if it’s consistent time after time, we can then decide if we believe their message to be true.
If you can't deliver brand experiences in line with your messaging, be careful of what you're putting out there. Bad impressions and experiences resonate. There are agricultural companies going through times of change and restructuring, and they are spending a great deal of time on their external brand positioning and expression when they should probably be working on culture. If you burn the first experience and try to entice someone back in to have another experience, it is extremely difficult to change their mind—and the costs of doing so are high.
This is why culture must be at the forefront of what we do as agrimarketers. We have to make sure that the organizations we work for are focusing on culture; otherwise, we'll be writing checks with their brands that their cultures can’t cash.
At the same time, culture isn’t just about brand alignment, as strong, well-defined and maintained cultures create more than that.
If you have a strong culture, your best talent will want to stay, and bring more of the best talent with it. It will yield increased discretionary effort: Strong cultures make people care, and when you care, you give and work harder. You feel like you're rewarded for what you do, so you try to achieve more. Right now, macro and micro economic pressures are forcing many ag organizations to achieve more with less. Discretionary effort is that means of doing so. We need individuals giving their all, as this drives efficiency while supporting employee and customer loyalty.
We all know brands in our own lives that have strong cultures and just seem to get it right, and it feels great doing business with them time and again. It’s no different in agriculture. When farmers or retailers feel that strong cultural connection, they will want to do business with your company, and they will recommend the same to others.
Building Better Brands
We've talked about building the foundation of a strong culture. If you don't have that, what you're presenting as a brand can be very fragile.
That being said, your brand is still very important, and as agrimarketers, there's room for improvement. What's one of the main tenants of branding? To differentiate. Your brand is the image you present to the world, and you want it to stand out. Unfortunately, this is not the norm in agriculture, as the vast majority of product and company brands get lost in the gray due to poor differentiation and brand strategy.
Some say that in commoditized markets, like ag, the need, ability and benefit of differentiating are all reduced, and therefore less important. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as shown by the many other industries that have proven the power of brand even in the most highly commoditized of environments.
Companies in other industries have wrapped their product in a brand and an experience that causes people to want to pay more for it—and we can all do the same. This requires finding what we like to call your “Onlyness”—that true point of differentiation.
Your Onlyness doesn’t describe everything you do as a business. Think of it as your calling card: that element that is authentic (true to the organization), relevant (desired by the markets you serve), and most importantly, different. What makes you different from the competition is difficult to find, but it exists. It's very easy to call out your differentiation based on innovation and growth, feeding the world, sustainability and other typical catch-all terms, but when all others are doing the same, you and your brand stand nothing to gain.
In addition, agrimarketers need to understand and embrace the difference between brand positioning and brand strategy, as the latter can ultimately determine the success or failure of even the most differentiated of brands. In agriculture in general, we have the bad habit of creating brand soup. We manage more brands than we should and come up with new ones much too frequently. As a rule of thumb, if you think you need to create a new brand, 9 times out of 10, you don't.
New brands take a lot of time and investment, and they don't come to life and create equity quickly. You have to be very strategic if you're introducing a new brand to the market, as it will immediately fragment your budget and focus of attention. In the ag industry, crop protection companies generally run as a house of brands. This was originally done to mitigate risk if there was a failure in a newly introduced product, because it would not drag down other brands in the portfolio, including the corporate “parent” brand. While this was a strategic way to mitigate risk, it mitigated rewards as well: In branded houses, or hybrid models, if one product does well, it reflects well on products in the portfolio and the corporate brand through association.
Another reason ag organizations typically act as a house of brands is to provide flexibility: you don't have to come up with difficult naming architectures that work for multiple products if these products don’t need to relate to one another. Unfortunately, this results in managing a number of brands that all require the investment of time and effort to grow awareness and equity independently of each other. It is by far the costliest way of managing brands, and to this day, there are only a few organizations in the entire world who possess the marketing budgets to manage it properly (P&G, Nestle, Coca-Cola, etc., and even they are moving towards brand consolidation). It also tends to be the worst strategy for driving brand loyalty—something many in ag have struggled with in the past.
Thankfully, there is brand loyalty to be had in agriculture, but your model may not be built to generate it. For example, most crop protection companies have adopted a house of brands model and struggle with generally lower-than-average brand loyalty (a known weakness of the model), whereas equipment manufacturers have adopted a branded house model and benefit from substantially higher-than-average brand loyalty (a known benefit of the model). As agrimarketers, we can’t blame the customer for not being loyal if we’ve built the wrong model!
It’s also important to think about the strategy you're using for managing brands from a “purchase brand” vs “usage brand” standpoint. Purchase brands are those where a great deal of focus is on the customer's path to purchasing the product. Once the product has been bought, the marketer’s job is essentially done. There’s an emphasis on promotion, enticement and getting the customer to take action, but little (if any) focus on their experience post-purchase
Usage brands go beyond the purchase and focus on how they can encourage customers to continue to experience the product and/or brand. These companies want to create experiences that feel so good, people can't help but talk about them. That's why usage brands focus a lot of attention on what customers say to each other.
This is where reviews come in. When was the last time you as a consumer checked a review on a product? Probably in the last day or so. We trust what others say, and this is true for any industry, ag included.
This is why it’s so important to focus on the overall brand experience, especially post-purchase. Your job isn’t over once the purchase has been made; it’s only just begun. Now that the customer is in the loop, they're part of the family. How do you keep nurturing them? How do you keep them feeling good? How do you keep them wanting to buy and experience more?
Earning Consumer Trust
There are multiple areas of the ag industry where consumer trust is either waning or becoming exponentially tougher to earn. Whether it's the treatment of animals, the safety of crop protection products or overall land stewardship practices, ag is under fire for many reasons both perceived and real. In this reality, it’s easy to feel like we're up against the wall and that we’ve got to do something, and fast. While this is true, we've developed some very bad habits when dealing with getting out of the proverbial “doghouse”.
The first bad habit is fighting back by taking an adversarial position. We want to tell the world how the alternative is wrong, and we're right. How we know the facts, and they don’t. How consumers should trust us, not them. We try to protect the status quo at all costs, even though it may mean a less desirable reality for the consumer.
As consumers, we all know that choice matters. Consumers have an inherent right to choose, and so we have to understand that as agricultural companies, painting choice as a bad thing is never going to serve us well. Whether its GMO or organic, real dairy or non-dairy, meat-based or plant-based, we need to switch the script from “or” to “and,” and show how we understand and embrace consumer choice, even it is means change (and increased competition) for us.
The other bad habit is ag ignorance. As members of the ag industry, we are inherently biased in our opinion on how much ag and farming matters to consumers. This isn’t to say that “food production” doesn’t matter, but that the vast majority of consumers don’t know where their food comes from or how it’s made (namely because they don’t care enough to find out). As such, when we believe that consumers have to or need to care because it’s so important to us, we’ve lost perspective of the ultimate goal. Ultimately, we need to encourage open, honest dialogue with consumers so that they can make up their own minds based on complete information.
In both of these cases, many agrimarketers paint farmers as either the hero or the victim. We try to appeal to consumers as we would to each other, but we forget that we're talking to an audience that might not want or care to hear our message.
Knowing the place of origin for a food product is a lot different than needing to know the farmer’s name and that he/she has a spouse, three kids and gives back to the community. By believing that consumers care more than they do, we try to push a lot of research, statistics and information on them that they simply aren’t interested in consuming, and therefore, we’re often unsuccessful in our efforts to move the needle on overall trust.
Moreover, those who are consuming this content tend to be farmers or industry peers, so we are really only pandering to ourselves, not the consumer. Ag needs to find new ways to earn back consumer trust, and a big part of that is approaching the dialogue openly, on the consumer’s terms, and in a manner that respects their right to make their own choices.
Navigating the Generational Gap
As agrimarketers, we've become accustomed to navigating generational change for a while now. That said, our industry remains one that is dominated by older generations serving older generations, as the primary decision-makers on both the sides of the equation (farmers and agribusinesses) are more than likely to be 50+ years of age.
What this means is that even if new, younger generations are entering the fray, they are doing so at levels of authority that provide them with significantly less influence. As such, it is easy to see why agriculture has been somewhat reluctant to embrace and drive revolutionary change, since those “steering the ship” have been doing so for the last 20-30 years. However, this is going to change in the very near future, as retirement becomes a reality for many, and subsequent generations in middle management will inherent the burden of leadership like never before.
This transition will create a great deal of change, so farmers and agribusinesses alike must decide to either get ahead of it now, or wait for it to really hit us. There's going to be a large exodus of baby boomer leaders, and we're also going to see a large influx of millennial workers moving up in the ranks. This means major pressure on Gen X to take on the leadership position and manage the new workforce.
Right now, so much of the focus is on baby boomers and millennials. Gen X, whether in organizations or on the farm, are going to have a massive amount of authority and influence, even though they're a smaller group. We can't forget about them. They’re about to take the throne, and they need support like never before.
In addition, now is the time to engage your younger customers and employees. A way to do that is to drive decisions down your org chart. The further down the org chart you go, the younger the employees will generally be. Let younger people make decisions for younger generations. There's a natural empathy there. Additionally, they've grown up in a very different environment, and that's a perspective that we need to bring to ag. There are going to be farmers and other ag consumers who want to do things differently than their father, or who prefer interacting with brands in a different way than their older brother did, so it is likely that by listening to the ideas of younger generations, we will find the true change and disruption that ag deserves.
Aligning Sales & Marketing
As an agrimarketer, if you don’t know and embrace the term sales qualified lead (SQL), you should — and quickly. As marketers in more progressive industries would attest, the SQL is one of the new standard indicators of marketing success, as awareness is simply no longer enough.
We need to show that we can drive leads, prospects and opportunities, and that we can do our part in not just filling but nurturing the sales funnel. Historically, marketers have focused on the awareness, interest and consideration stages, and sales took it from there. Now, we must maintain focus on the customer through and past the final purchase decision.
With the technology available to us today, we can now track and analyze all of the information customers and prospects alike provide us through the digital footprints they leave within our marketing ecosystems. We can tell when they’re interested, what they’re interested in and what they are considering next without them ever communicating it to us directly. The technology is there to do this for both our marketing and sales teams. It’s a big shift, but it’s a change fundamental to marketing success in the digital world.
While technology can enable much of the doing, you will still need aligned sales and marketing teams to inform your thinking. For example, what will constitute a lead from a prospect? An MQL from an SQL, and an SQL from a Proposal? What tactics and content will you use to drive names into the funnel? How will they be qualified? How will you convert them to the next stage of the journey? Where does marketing end and sales begin?
For many, a prospect may be defined as someone who has come across your site and signed up. With limited data, you don't know if they're there because they've got purchase intention or are simply seeking information. At the same time, a lead may be someone who has started to take actions that make them look like they might be interested in a product (e.g. consuming different pieces of content, downloading certain brochures, etc.).
So, if they are a lead, how do you turn them into an opportunity? You see that this person has a need. You see that they're going to make a decision at some point, so do you deliver them more content in hopes of qualifying them further, or do you engage sales at that point to attempt the final conversion? Thankfully, there's phenomenal technologies available to us all that can do much of the above and help vastly improve our conversions and ROI consistently over time.
And the benefit isn’t just for the marketer — marketing automation and sales enablement tools can give the customer a much more enjoyable experience by delivering them the right information, in the right format, in the right place at the right time.
Digital Evolution – Less is More
Convinced for years that our customers weren’t “digital,” the ag industry was late to the digital marketing game, and because of that, we went on an online building spree in the last half-decade to try to catch up. We built websites and micro-sites, company sites and product sites, online tools and digital apps. We engaged in social channels of all types trying to be everywhere for everyone. We thought more was better, and ultimately, we created too many assets to manage, with little thought or guidance to how someone might navigate it.
We started using interactive and gamification strategies to provide product information. If a consumer wanted to get information on a product, they had to jump through a few hoops and do some gimmicky things to get that information.
Ultimately, we forgot to put on our own consumer hat and say, "Would I like this experience? How would this feel to me?” We went interactive for the sake of being interactive and built for the sake of building, and it didn’t work because it all meant more effort and more friction for the user. In our haste to play catch-up, we failed to think about what really matters to the person seeking information on the other end. Now we need to stop, reflect and build the digital experiences for our customers that we appreciate as consumers ourselves.
Utilizing data for hyper personalized customer experience possible with localized data on consumption habits and buyer pattern.
As agrimarketers, we can learn a lot from the other industries that serve the same customers we do, like sports entertainment, banking and outdoor lifestyles. Because the majority of these industries began building and optimizing their digital ecosystems well before ag did, we have the rare opportunity to “leapfrog” their mistakes as we strive to build a digital presence that is both more effective (i.e. capable of generating greater conversions and returns) and efficient (i.e. with less investment and effort).
Finally, we encourage all agrimarketers to think beyond what is on the immediate digital horizon. More specifically, while the debate is still ongoing as to how deeply and thoroughly e-commerce will penetrate agriculture, history would dictate that it is only as matter of time before e-commerce becomes part of our business and marketing practices. That means the time is now to start embracing the thinking that will drive success in the e-commerce future.
This isn’t to say that all agrimarketers should start building e-commerce sites today, or even tomorrow. Instead, we encourage practicing a “pre-commerce” mindset, wherein you build digital ecosystems and experiences that cater to the buyer’s journey (like e-commerce does) with the only difference being the lack of making the final sale online (which then becomes the final piece of integration at a later time).
Digital Revolution – Data-Driven Marketing
We all have a digital footprint. Like our own digital DNA code, the things we do online, and the touchpoints we interact with say a lot about who we are and what we're interested in.
This of course has a shadow side, but there’s no denying it’s a useful tool for consumers and businesses alike. On the consumer side, it can help build better online experiences by ensuring we are only delivered information by companies that align with our interests. And for marketers, it improves our odds of getting in front of an audience who is ready and willing to engage.
One of the challenges agrimarketers face today is limited data. Analytics are mostly blind, as we often can’t connect a name to an IP address. We can see the traffic coming to the site, what users are doing on the site, what pages they’re bouncing from, how much time they spend on the site, but we have no idea who they are. Without a name, we can’t connect them to any of the sales-based data we may possess offline.
The ability to get that name and see that name associated with the other purchase information you may have is coming. But until then, many of our databases are incomplete or outdated. Still, there’s information you can glean from them. As Salesforce would attest, there are insights and opportunities to be found in even the most basic and limited of data sets.
So, instead of waiting for perfect or conducting new research, a lot of organizations in the consumer goods space are going to data they already have to gain new insights (complete or not). But for agrimarketers, even when the analysis is done, the insights aren't shared or acted on, so sales and marketing don't change our behaviors. We just continue doing what we've done.
Intertwining all business activities via digital technology to provide a consistent and integrated customer experience.
Instead, agrimarketers should be modeling their data practices after other industries that have mastered it. With all of the change taking place in our industry, we have an opportunity to be the revolution. Marketing is one of the fastest-moving areas of business, independent of the industry you are in. As such, agrimarketers can be catalysts for the companies, products and brands we steward. We can be the drivers of truly fresh, non-ag thinking. We can be the ones to break ag out of its traditional box.
At the end of the day, the reality is simple: we either need to be the change or have someone force it on us. Because, if we don't like change, we're going to like irrelevance even less. Agrimarketers have such an opportunity ahead of us, and 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 presents 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 businesses and brands into a brighter future.