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BRAND BUILDING
ADOPTION OF AG BRANDS IN TODAY'S TOUGH MARKETING ENVIRONMENT - LANDMARK RESEARCH FROM APA
In today's climate of increasing consolidation of companies and producers, where top management is asking marketing departments to get more out of smaller budgets, how is it possible to increase or maintain brand equity or launch a new brand with hopes of making in-roads in the marketplace?

In March 2002, members of APA: the Association of Leading
Ag Media Companies, sponsored a landmark study to review the process by which agricultural brands are forged and maintained. It's been long known that brands are the result of the integrated strengths that sales and marketing brings to the market. APA wanted to know if the role of sales reps, dealers and communication programs still makes sense in the present ag economic climate. Has the farmer/producer changed their process of seeking information about brands and making purchase decisions?

Over 7,000 surveys were sent to farmers and ranchers with 36.9 percent returned, providing a 95 percent confidence level in the results.

RESEARCH OBJECTIVES

To document whether the premise was true - that the integrated strengths of sales reps, dealers, and marketing communication programs build a brand - the survey first sought to determine the following:

Market trends affecting the sale of products and equipment to larger farmers and ranchers

Trends in producers' attitudes and actions regarding their relationships with suppliers
How the branding process for ag products and equipment is initiated

And secondly, to determine:

The role of ag publications as a medium for continuing education and for learning about new ag products, equipment and suppliers
Trends in the producer's involvement with ag publications
How effective advertising in ag publications is as a medium for branding products
Whether ag publications continue to generate specific sales leads for marketers

This article discusses the research findings of the first three objectives. The remaining results will be discussed in the July/August issue and can be obtained from your print media sales rep.

MARKET TRENDS AFFECTING PRODUCT SALES

The ag market has shifted structurally and continues to do so. The result, which is no surprise, is fewer but larger producers. Since the mid-90s, fully 70 percent have been involved in some operational change, either merging, acquiring, being acquired, forming strategic alliances and partnerships, or closing their operations altogether. Twenty-eight percent have merged or acquired farms/ranches. Plus, 50 percent say they will be involved in some structural and operational change in the next four to five years.

At these larger operations, more sophisticated decision-makers are emerging. Farmers and ranchers see themselves as more astute in their understanding of the market and its business practices. Across all key variables describing level of education, knowledge of ag technology, understanding of ag-critical issues, business skills required for success, and willingness to try new approaches, a significant percentage feel they are more or much more advanced than previous generations.

The likely impact on suppliers will be greater difficulty in building and maintaining relationships. Marketers must keep track of how individual operations are restructuring and who the decision-makers are. The increasing sophistication of buyers will require marketers to fine-tune their sales approaches to focus on bringing benefits to buyers.

Producers use many sources to remain educated and up-to-date. Various educational sources keep producers current with changes in farming and ranching.

ATTITUDES AND ACTIONS TOWARD SUPPLIERS

The environment in which ag suppliers seek to brand and sell their products has become more formidable. On the other hand, the environment presents opportunities to those understanding the market environment.

The producer's relationships with suppliers are more businesslike and objective, with many foregoing brand loyalty and examining a range of alternatives before purchasing. Producers are aware of recent mergers and acquisitions among suppliers and as a result are more concerned about supplier stability. Fifty-nine percent of respondents say they are more or much more concerned about a supplier's stability.

Half of today's producers are less loyal to suppliers. They are now more willing to evaluate new suppliers. And most importantly, fully 91 percent feel their relationships with

suppliers are changing. More commitment from sales reps to stay involved after the sale is expected, plus more custom solutions from reps are required.

Given the dynamics of these issues, it is urgent for suppliers to communicate with the market more frequently, build and maintain brand awareness, form product perceptions, position against the competition, and generate preference.

SALES REPS' CHANGING ROLES

The research reveals many important issues regarding the changing role of sales reps and dealers. While extremely important in the selling process, the role takes on a new perspective given many factors. Almost half the producers find they have less time to see sales reps. Buyers often go to the supplier Web sites for more information after seeing an ad rather than waiting for the sales rep. Eighty percent do not see sales reps regularly and 41 percent do not see dealer or retailer reps regularly.

When a farmer or rancher does see a sales rep, the trend is for the rep to use more time to discuss strategic needs versus product features and benefits. Sales reps often need to call on a purchasing team, but this only occurs about 38 percent of the time. Fully two-thirds of farming and ranching operations state there are multiple numbers of people involved in major purchasing decisions.

Before visiting dealers and retailers, buyers are most likely to already have one or two brands in mind. Ninety-three percent say they frequently, very frequently, or sometimes have a brand in mind before contacting a dealer or retailer. Also, most dealers carry competing brands, but may not be knowledgeable about all those brands or don't have the time to discuss all of the competitive brands in any one particular category.

Based on a more demanding and businesslike market, suppliers need to communicate more frequently about their brands. However, supplier reps cannot do this job alone. Buyers are not frequently available, have less time for reps, and so on. Ag dealers and retailers also need support in the branding process. Buyers frequently know the products they want to evaluate before seeing dealers. It is essential that suppliers use other means to build their brands, at both the farmer/rancher level and the retailer/decision team level, investing in marketing media that can support and deliver sales messages frequently and effectively.

AG COMMUNICATIONS MEDIA INITIATES THE BRANDING PROCESS

In a changing market such as this one, it is difficult for reps and dealers to communicate frequently and effectively. In fact, buyers prefer to know about a supplier prior to first seeing sales reps. Two-thirds of the producers first learn about a supplier's capabilities and products via the vendor's communications programs. And before seeing sales reps, 85 percent of producers prefer to have learned about a supplier and a supplier's products through their communications programs.

Communications programs pave the way for a rep's calls and shorten the purchasing process, making the process more efficient. Producers rely on an array of sources to first learn about new products, equipment and suppliers - the initial step to building a brand.

SUMMARY

The industry is changing. No one will argue that point. The products marketed, the infusion of technology in the system, and the role of sales reps and suppliers as part of the communications mix, all indicate that the role of traditional communication media has not lessened - and research indicates the role has become more critical.

As farmer loyalty to products, brands and their suppliers slips, the manufacturer/supplier must keep its sales force focused on offering customized solutions, keep the retailer/dealer on the same page, and continue to communicate the brand message efficiently and frequently, showing real benefits to farmers and ranchers. Farmers and ranchers confirm this is necessary.

Based on the results of this research, the July/August issue will further explore the role of farm media to deliver the brand benefit message and educate farmers and ranchers. For more details about this study and its results, please contact a media representative from one of the member companies of APA, or e-mail us at info@agrimarketing.com. AM

Research source: "The Adoption Of Agricultural Brands In The 21st Century"; Martin Akel & Associates; 3/02. Results represent all crop/livestock categories combined. They have been weighted to reflect the proper number and types of producers in the U.S. agricultural market.


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