By Jorge Abrego
Advertising Director of Acres U.S.A.

It seems increasingly certain that we are currently in the greatest state of evolution – maybe even revolution – that agriculture has ever experienced. Change has become the status quo beginning with industry-wide consolidation, to increasing numbers of start-ups and agtech innovations, as companies of all sizes are responding to the needs of evolving consumers, markets and grower demands.

And it follows that agrimarketing, which is the business discipline of creating, positioning, promoting, selling and fulfilling brand, product or service offerings is necessarily also being impacted by this evolution. As the world and our industry continue to change ever more rapidly, new ideas and talent are pouring into agriculture that beckons us forward to elevate the game and the industry.

For too long, companies in the ag industry have suffered the consequences of working primarily with “ag specialists” and consultants that have limited our industry to a lack of outside influence that can stymie success and impede healthy growth. This may seem counter-intuitive but missing out on the tremendous talent and thinking that exists beyond the ag industry has caused ag to lag behind other industries in key factors related to brand development, corporate culture and digital marketing.

Building Better Brands

When your culture isn’t as “friendly” as your brand says it is. Today, end users can see into an organization more easily than ever before.  If your brand and culture don’t align, there is a dissonance between what your company says and what it does which customers can see in action, and even call out the brand promises that your culture can’t keep. Trying to build a brand on a weak cultural foundation is a recipe for failure, not just in ag, but industries across the board. Today’s consumers are already skeptical and as agrimarketers – and as consumers ourselves – we know just how cautious we can be of the messages we’re served and whether they are living up to their brand promises.

In past posts on this forum we’ve talked about building the foundation of a strong culture and if you don’t have that, what you’re presenting as a brand can be very fragile. That being said, your brand is very important and as agrimarketers, there’s definitely room for improvement regarding one of the main tenants of branding: differentiation.

Unfortunately, this is not the norm in agriculture, as the vast majority of product and company brands tend to get lost in a sea of sameness 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 constructed their brands to enable end users to experience a premium position — and ag companies and their brands can do the same. This requires finding what is sometimes called your “Onlyness” — that true point of differentiation. However, your Onlyness can’t, and shouldn’t, describe everything you do as a business. But think of it as a calling card of sorts: that element that is authentic, relevant and most importantly, and actually different. What makes you different from your competition can oftentimes be difficult to find, but it does exist. It’s 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.

Brand Positioning vs. Brand Strategy

Agrimarketers need to understand and embrace the difference between brand positioning and brand strategy. The former is where your brand ranks relative to its competitors in the market, but the latter can ultimately determine the success or failure of even the most differentiated of brands. For the most part, agriculture has been in the habit of creating brand soup when it comes to their brand strategy. 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.

In ag, a branded house model beats a house of brands any day of the week. Why? Because new brands take a lot of time and investment, and they don’t come to life and create equity quickly. This is by far the costliest and least efficient way of managing brands because a number of brands requires the investment of time and effort to grow awareness and equity independently of each other. Plus, introducing a new brand to the market will fragment both your budget and your focus of attention. To this day, there are only a few organizations in the entire world who possess the marketing budgets and wherewithal to manage it properly (P&G, Nestle, Coca-Cola, etc.,) and even they are moving towards brand consolidation. 

Crop protection companies, for example, to tend 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. By contrast, in branded houses 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. But, unfortunately, a house of brands also tends to be the worst strategy for driving brand loyalty — something many in ag struggle with.

Thankfully, there is brand loyalty to be had in agriculture, but your model may not be built to generate it. Once again crop protection companies adopting a house of brands model struggle with generally lower-than-average brand loyalty which is a weakness of the model. Whereas equipment manufacturers have for the most part adopted a branded house strategy and benefit from substantially higher-than-average brand loyalty, a long-acknowledged benefit of this model. As agrimarketers, we can’t blame the customer for not being loyal if we’ve built the wrong model!

Don’t Settle for Best in Ag

By now everyone has heard of ride sharing’s wreaking havoc on the taxi industry and how “status quo thinking” cemented its place in the pantheon of cautionary tales. But the reality is that we in ag need to think about how we can progress our abilities at a rate greater than the challenges we’re facing and push our thinking beyond the status quo.

Running a business can be stressful and agriculture is fraught with uncontrollable ups and downs, but none of them are as dangerous or unsettling as falling into the trap of living the status quo. Thinking that I’ve got the answers, that I can rest on my laurels and simply do what I do is perilous to me and indeed to the entire ag industry. We know how to compete against each other but have no idea how to embrace change that can and will eventually be thrust upon us from outside of our industry as technology, consumer behavior and new business models continue to impact agriculture in dramatic ways. It’s not hard to imagine that agriculture is going to be thrown a competitive curveball by an outside industry like big tech at some point in the near future.

So, how can we equip ourselves with new and better solutions to solve problems we’ve never had to solve before?  I believe that the means by which we do so begins with looking beyond our own backyard. More specifically, while we must understand and monitor our industry partners and direct competitors, we must not consider them our primary source of learning and inspiration. If we only learned from and mimicked other agrimarketers who, in turn, are doing the same, we will inevitably find ourselves in a vicious cycle of regurgitated best practices and myopic “best in ag” thinking that only serves to protect the status quo. This isn’t to say that we can’t learn from each other, but that truly transformative innovation comes from stepping outside of our proverbial “comfort zone”.

This means constantly exploring worlds outside of ag to seek out and adopt more new practices, ideas and offerings. Offerings that can leap-frog existing and competitor best practices in areas like digital marketing, behavioral targeting, brand differentiation and cultural leadership. Offerings that improve not just our income statements but also our understanding of disruptive changes. Offerings that have already helped businesses in other industries face and overcome the challenges ag faces today and may face tomorrow.

Jorge Abrego is the Advertising Director for Acres U.S.A. and has 26 years of advertising agency and B2B media experience in the agriculture, energy and technology sectors. To get Marketing Matters articles delivered directly to your inbox on a regular basis, sign up here.