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TRUST IS KEY TO POSITIVE BRAND EXPERIENCE
Nobody was surprised in the summer of 2000 when the retail ground beef market in Canada dropped. In May, an E. coli outbreak in Walker, Ontario killed seven and sent scores more to the hospital.

The fact that the outbreak had nothing to do with ground beef didn't matter. E. coli stories flooding the media across Canada cited ground beef as a potential source of E. coli risk, convicting it of guilt by association.

What was a surprise that summer - but probably shouldn't be to agrimarketers - was that throughout the controversy, sales of fast food hamburgers outpaced total foodservice market growth. The branding efforts of fast food chains, which went beyond value and convenience to also incorporate cleanliness, quality, and a 'we love your kids' attitude, helped give Canadian consumers the confidence they needed to keep buying their food.

"More than ever before," says Chris Davison, vice president of public relations for the Adculture Group, Milton, Ontario, "trust is a value, and the creation of that trust underpins the total brand experience."

Davison points to biotechnology and food safety as examples of issues that are placing more emphasis on trust, as well as on the importance of building brands and creating brand experiences that are trustworthy. Similar forces apply to environmental concerns related to food production.

"To complicate matters more, we're no longer faced with a lack of information on these issues," Davison notes. "If anything, it's the opposite - information overload. And when you add the speed of modern communications into the mix, the result is an enormous potential for consumer confusion, not clarity."

That confusion breeds mistrust, Davison says, and it touches everyone, not just urban consumers. It also impacts the agribusinesses that provide the products and services used to produce our food, as well as the farmers producing it.

For some, it means seizing new value-added markets and marketing opportunities for crops and livestock that are differentiated on the basis of 'field-to-fork' production and segregation. For others, it means increased transparency in their communications with stakeholders and the very consumers who are asking the questions about the way their food is produced. Either way, Davison says, it can have significant implications for branding efforts.

CLEARER VISION

Take the vision statement for Syngenta, created last year from the merger of the ag portfolios of Novartis and Zeneca. The new vision statement specifically locates Syngenta as part of 'the food and feed chain." Considering that the former companies identified themselves first and foremost as developers and manufacturers of crop protection products and services, it's a significant shift.

This new vision of Syngenta as part of the food production system is more than hollow words; it's actually impacting local decision-making, explains Jay Bradshaw, president of Syngenta Crop Protection in Canada. "We're in the business of providing food production solutions," says Bradshaw, "not selling crop protection products."

In eastern Canada, for example, Syngenta now has an agronomist dedicated to working with potato processors, identifying the quality needs of the processors and helping to create field management systems that will produce potatoes that better meet those needs. A few years ago, this position didn't exist.

"We are determined to build Syngenta as a brand," Bradshaw says. "When a customer or a potential customer hears our name, they need to immediately grasp that it means more than just products that perform. It's also got to mean that we understand and support their business objectives."

FAITH IN FOOD

With beef, branding is all about trust - assuring consumers that they can count on a good eating experience, points out Margaret Thibeault, communications manager for the Beef Information Centre, the marketing division of the Canadian Cattlemen's Association. "As an industry we support the shift to branded beef as a way to better meet consumer expectations of consistent quality," Thibeault says.

Although branding of beef is about quality attributes, the nature of branding carries with it an image of safe, wholesome product. "As a group, consumers have a strong desire to believe that their food is safe," Thibeault says. "The fact that retail ground beef sales rebounded in a matter of months following the Walkerton incident speaks to the faith consumers have in their food system and in beef."

While consumers vary significantly in the effort they put into ascertaining that their food is safe, Thibeault adds, virtually all consumers link their trust in food with their trust in the farmer who produced it. That's a bedrock truth, even though farmers are typically far removed from the urban consumer, and many of the most serious food safety risks arise long after the grain or livestock leaves the farm.

Ironically, the emphasis that consumers put on needing to know that the farmer is dedicated to producing wholesome food actually places a huge burden on those farmers. "Beef producers are our most credible spokespeople," Thibeault says. "But it's a catch-22. How is the farmer who is already working 14 to 16 hours a day and is geographically isolated able to find time to talk to consumers? Our challenge is to find creative ways to put a face to our farmers and ranchers."

That's where effective branding and brand building can help bridge the gap, says Robert Wilbur, Adculture vice president of advertising and direct marketing. Wilbur says if an organization can have all of the touch points that make up a customer's brand experience going in the same direction, it can create an unparalleled opportunity for establishing trust.

REINFORCING REPUTATION

Alberta-based ViewTrak Technologies Inc. is one company that is taking advantage of the environment that both Thibeault and Wilbur allude to. ViewTrak provides an Internet-based cattle information service that allows tracking of individual animals throughout production and processing. Beef packers and retailers, and by extension consumers, gain by being able to trace the production practices used to produce the beef. Producers gain from the opportunity to sell into premium-paying markets, as well as by tracking the effects of their management strategies on carcass quality.

"Irrespective of the size or scale of the individual cattle operation, the fundamental principle of accurately representing one's product or service within the marketplace carries a tremendous amount of weight," says Dr. Jake Burlet, ViewTrak president and CEO. "Agriculture has always relied on reputation. We see the opportunity to further leverage this reputation based on improved documentation of production practices."

More and more, in other words, reputation must be backed up by a transparent, third-party process that can accurately determine how the animal was produced. And the entire chain must have complete trust at every step. Packers, retailers and consumers must trust the system's accuracy. Beef producers must trust the confidentiality of the system. "We compare our security and level-of-trust needs to that of a top-rate financial institution," Burlet says.

"We need to demonstrate trust to all stakeholders, upstream and downstream," Burlet adds. "I can't begin to tell you how aggressively we have pursued this. It's neither simple nor inexpensive, but we see it as critical to the long-term success of our brand."

COMMUNICATION SOLUTIONS

The Council for Biotechnology Information in Canada, on the other hand, has a mandate to support dialogue and to share information about biotechnology, points out Council Executive Director Ray Mowling. It does this through its own advertising and outreach activities, including work with third parties who are involved in communicating with

consumers.

The council's messaging relies heavily on images of farmers and images associated with agriculture because of the credibility that farmers have with the public, Mowling says. "Our goal is to provide information to interested people," he explains. The council targets news-active Canadians, consumers who want a balance of information on both the benefits and the risks of biotechnology. "The council's credibility depends on that balance," Mowling says.

A critical secondary audience for the council is farmers themselves, although the objective here is less to educate farmers about the safety of biotechnology. "We need to demonstrate to farmers that we're part of the communications solution," Mowling says. "We recognize public acceptance is an issue, and we're helping to respond so that there will continue to be a market for crops produced with the help of biotechnology."

"It boils down to this," Wilbur explains. "Farmers want to know that you're on their side. They see big challenges ahead, and they're far from sure that they can tackle these issues all on their own. They're looking for partners that they can rely on."

BRAND BEGINNINGS

It's further proof, says Wilbur, that branding involves much, much more than simply creating a logo. Branding, instead, involves the entire relationship with the customer. Every point of contact becomes part of the brand experience, be that price, performance, product support and stewardship, corporate philanthropy, or communications.

As in the past, brands will continue to be built upon differentiation. And, every product, service, program or organization can and should be branded. In fact, it will be branded, Wilbur says. In the absence of a branding effort, the customer will create his or her own brand image, even if it's only to classify it as an also-ran that isn't any different from the competition.

The critical first step is to articulate the brand. Then the brand concept or proposition must be overlaid against every point of contact with the customer. "There always needs to be that touchstone - what does the brand stand for however or whenever I experience it?" Only after that question has been answered and established can communications be employed to drive awareness and understanding of the brand and in turn generate and support sales.

So, what's changing with branding you might ask? The importance of your ability to create trusted brands, Wilbur says. "In today's marketplace, more than ever, trusted brands will be the winners." AM

Tom Button is a public relations manager and team leader for Adculture, Milton, Ontario, Canada.


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