ALL IN HOW YOU PLAY IT
INOCULANT SALES RISE DUE TO INCREASED ACREAGE IN SPECIALTY CROPS LIKE PULSES
by Delaney M. Ross
Less than 10 years ago, inoculants were hardly a thought in farmers' minds. Studies by Ipsos Reid, Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Philom Bios, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, show that only 22 percent of Canadian farmers recognized inoculants as an input category in 1998. But as of 2001, this figure had grown to a whopping 91 percent of Canadian farmers, and industry players are running with the results. Why the change?
Several manufacturers confirmed that growth in various pulse crop markets helped bolster their inoculant sales over the past couple of years. However, just as quickly, momentum can swing the other direction. For example, this spring the drought across much of the Canadian Prairies led to a severe decrease in the seeded acreage of all pulses.
The U.S. farm bill is another variable potentially affecting pulse acreage in coming years. For the first time in 2002, the U.S. has subsidies available for pulse crops like peas, lentils and small-caliber chickpeas. Sanford Gleddie, VP of marketing and business development for Philom Bios, feels Canadian production will not be significantly affected by this development. But, if farmers perceive an increased risk in pulse crop production, that may limit the growth of the market for pulse crop seed, and hence the market for inoculants. "It's a wild card," Gleddie admits.
GROWTH UNDER PRESSURE
However, Delahey adds, it's more than just getting the name out there that makes the brand a success - it's living the concept. "The whole attitude of serving customers and living the brand comes from the top down to where the rubber hits the road with sales reps," he says. "If the sales rep doesn't live it and convince the grower, it's not going to work."
Heyday Communications has taken the direct approach to marketing Philom Bios' brand. The firm utilizes media formats such as direct mail, print, radio, trade shows, Web sites and farmer meetings/inoculant workshops to get the word out about its client's products.
Now, with the success Philom Bios has achieved in Canada, Gleddie says the company is looking to expand even further into the United States. "North Dakota had the first launch, and it was highly successful," he says. "We jumped into a dominant market share in the first year." Gleddie notes that Philom Bios will be opening a wholly owned subsidiary in the U.S. in October and adding a second rep to join the one already in North Dakota.
EGGS IN MANY BASKETS
Other companies are doing different things. At Brett-Young Seeds, Winnipeg, Manitoba, the approach to inoculant selling can best be described as "covering the bases." Instead of carrying the line of just one manufacturer, Brett-Young is the reseller or wholesaler of products from four major manufacturers. "The reason is there were quite a few shortages in the inoculant market a few years ago," explains Darren Palendat of Brett-Young. The company now carries a number of lines to make sure that customers have access to the product they want.
In all, Brett-Young offers 20 to 25 products, including all of the different formulations, and a number of specialized products for legume crops like birdsfoot trefoil, sainfoin and alfalfa. In years past, Brett-Young also offered BioNode - its own private label - which was packaged through Becker Underwood, Ames, Iowa. However, Palendat anticipates the company dropping the label in favor of focusing more on Becker Underwood's line of products, because he feels price and formulation are what customers are looking for in the inoculant they purchase.
"To a large degree, in my opinion, the inoculant market has been genericized," he says. "The end-user is not differentiating between products - between liquid, granular and self-stick, yes, but not brand name."
Palendat says Brett-Young is trying to be a full-service company. "To be able to meet customers' needs, we carry a full range of products. A lot of dealers appreciate the fact that we carry specialized products for legumes."
HIT THE TARGET
At Becker Underwood, the sales focus is on providing specific markets with products that are best suited to their region. "It's a very targeted marketing approach," says Ben Libby, sales and marketing manager.
Becker Underwood offers four formulations for its inoculant products: conventional peat, Self-Stik self-adhesive peat, BioRhiz liquid, and Nodulator granules. Each of these products fits the needs of a specific market and offers regionally adapted strains as active ingredients. Libby says that while the liquid and self-adhesive formulations are more popular, the conventional peat formulation is still used by growers who have the equipment to apply their own sticker. He also notes that fluctuations in the market can often result in year-to-year changes in product preference. "That's why we offer all four formulations in the Canadian market," he says.
In marketing these products, Libby says that targeted print gets the biggest push, along with trade shows and support for the company's dealer network. With the company's recent change to Becker Underwood from MicroBio RhizoGen, Libby says that marketing is taking more of a North American focus. Products are sold in the U.S., in Canada, or both - depending on the market. "We don't see a border," he says. In all, the company markets inoculants to more than 20 countries around the world.
THE FAMILY APPROACH
At Milwaukee-based Liphatech, branding is the buzzword when it comes to marketing. Why? Because the company sells its line of inoculant formulations - Cel-Tech liquid, Soil Implant granular, and Nitra-Stik self-adhesive - as a complete family of products. "With the family ad, we try to make it clear that Liphatech is a full-line supplier. You want liquid, granular, or peat? We manufacture all three," says David Fox, Ag Division marketing manager, Liphatech. In Western Canada, ads featuring the flowability of the granular product are also used, noting it "will not slow down the farmer," Fox adds.
Fox says that strategic placement is the name of the advertising game, with ads running in a fair number of magazines and some spot radio. "We also try to work very closely with distributors to get the message out to growers," Fox adds. That communication also keeps lines open to ensure that retail and farmers are buying what they intend to use - a concern stemming from a shortage a few years back when farmers and retailers alike were doubling up orders to get the product, sticking many companies with product they couldn't sell.
Industry phenomena like this affect all players, and Fox keeps a realistic view of this. "We are fraught with all the perils of everyone else in the industry," he says. While he says the size of the inoculant industry is an advantage for those in it, he adds that marketing is still a challenge. "It's a lot like a Rubik's Cube to get it all together," he says. Just like the game, the challenge of marketing takes time, strategy, anticipation of the next move and a bit of luck. But putting it all together means you've truly made all the right moves. AM
Delaney M. Ross is the advising agronomist at Issues Ink, Winnipeg, Manitoba, which publishes Germination and several other magazines.