Agricultural Branding. Products and Companies
By Tom Dougherty
For the largest suppliers to the agriculture branding industry – those who supply seeds, chemicals, technology and other services – there is often a balancing act between promising your target audience one thing and navigating the regulatory difficulties to stay in business with another. Here’s what we mean: If you’re a giant like DuPont or Monsanto (the Monsanto Brand), you battle two fronts that require precise, meaningful messaging for both of them. The crazy thing is that both fronts can be fought with the same weapon: A real brand. (See some works Stealing Share did for Syngenta).
The Reason Why
An agriculture brand becomes the reason why customers may prefer you but it can also give you permission to talk about the things in the regulatory and media arena in a more resonate way. It is the hallmark of agricultural branding. These companies have several audiences for their communications: farmers and large agricultural companies (the Dole Foods or Chiquita Brands of the world), which make up the customers; and regulators and media that scrutinize the individual members of the industry to make sure their products are safe. One audience buys. The other monitors. Yet, both search for meaning.
Searching for Meaning
For most agricultural marketers, the idea of a brand for customers is a no-brainer – although, you wouldn’t know it by the brands that are actually marketed. All say they should be preferred because of the company’s longevity, innovation and because they help farmers feed the world. All that means is they are not reasons to choose because everyone claims them. (Side note: It continues to astonish us when working with a new client how little it has paid attention to competitive messages. They are often amazed how similar their own messaging is when they finally do examine the competition.) What’s worse is that many talk about themselves – that is, the company – not the customer. It’s not about who the customer is when they use that brand (like Nike shoe wearers are “winners” or Apple users are who that “think different).
It’s about the company. DuPont’s position is the “miracles of science.” Whose miracle is that? Why, DuPont’s, of course. Syngenta’s position is “Bringing plant potential to life.” Who’s doing that? Syngenta, of course. None tap into how customers want to see themselves. Same for the Monsanto brand. (Our suspicion: It’s more about business.
Many of the nation’s agricultural operations are extremely sophisticated, technology-based businesses that are a long way from the family operations of years past. The touchy-feely stuff is a thing of the past.) By the same token, these companies face challenges on the other front. Agriculture is an extremely regulated industry, which means much of a company’s resources are devoted to conducting tests and submitting data to federal agencies for review. Those regulatory bodies, whether they admit it or not, are affected by media perceptions – which means the press is another key audience.
When Branding Agriculture Products Science is a Table Stake
Most agriculture branding companies in these situations attempt to win on science, explaining the intricacies of why one study is proven fact and the other isn’t. The problem with this is that nobody really cares about the science, not even the media. They only care about the final effect, which is why those who attack agricultural companies often have an emotional advantage.
However, just as stubborn as agricultural companies can be when it comes to their marketing, they are also steadfast in defending themselves with science only. What would help is if they had brands that were so meaningful that its brand equity helped in the public relations messaging. With that emotional umbrella, they look like big, bad companies and wonder why nobody will listen to them. (“Miracles of science” doesn’t really help DuPont’s PR, for example. It may be a miracle that a chemical can kill for one audience, and horrifying to another.)
Agricultural Branding In Context
Brands work best in context. That means the position has to consider all the audiences it touches, not just the one who pays the bills. Other audiences affect how many pay the bill. Recalls in another regulated industry, medical devices, can determine the overall success or failure of a company, for example. Just ask Guidant, now part of Boston Scientific because its own value-less brand did not inspire confidence when recalls hit. (It’s similar to the dilemma now facing Toyota.) However, a brand like St. Jude Medical – which, in full disclosure, was a brand we developed – helps both areas. Its brand promises that surgeons will have more control and less risk.
That promise applies to the regulatory and safety issues as well. Therefore, when the media asks about a product, it is more likely to believe a company that is about lessening risk than one that promises the best technology (Guidant). (Word to the wise: Media are more affected by brand than you might think.) Risk is simply more emotional. Technology is just the gears so it further perpetuates the idea of a big, bad company because it’s cold and unemotional.
By itself, a message of technology doesn’t answer the question of why technology is important. The question agricultural companies must ask themselves is the same: Why? Why is what they do important to farmers? And why would that brand position give the company permission to talk about science and answer the question of why its focus on science is important? If those suppliers continues to find themselves positioning on innovation, the complexity of science and having been around a long time, they’ll continue to ask themselves why customers have little preference in face of the threat of generic manufacturers and public pressure on their products. It’s a question that may well determine their own level of success.