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STAYING ON TARGET
In a time of struggling agricultural markets, corporate downsizing and consolidation, it's no wonder today's ag companies are seeking new ways to reduce costs and increase efficiency. But when it comes to cross-border advertising, is selling a case of chemical the same in Kendrick, Idaho, as it is in Lac Brom, Quebec? It is wise to understand market-specific communication tactics and the difference between them.

Decisions by Monsanto and John Deere to consolidate advertising agencies have agrimarketers' tongues wagging north of the border. Is this the beginning of a trend to organize marketing communications on a North American rather than a national basis? Are these companies still acknowledging the differences between the American and Canadian customers? Can communications still be relevant to an audience that lies on the outside of the target rather than the bull's-eye?

Ross Harvey, a partner of AdFarm, an agricultural marketing communications agency with offices in Kansas City, Mo.; Fargo, N.D.; and Calgary, Alberta, says it is possible for an agency to create effective communications for both North American audiences, but it can be challenging. Meeting these challenges involves ensuring context, values and cultural norms are all recognized within the message, as well as a number of other variables.

Harvey uses a campaign AdFarm did for the introduction of the Lexion combine for Caterpillar/Class of America, as an example. "The creative campaign for the cereal grains market was, in fact, common in both countries. But there were language and terminology differences that we had to incorporate. There were also some differences in timing of when the advertising ran because of the production cycle," Harvey says. "We helped the client by appreciating that there were differences between the two markets."

Caroline Chambers, Roundup business lead, Monsanto Canada
Carolin Chambers, Roundup business lead with Monsanto Canada, also appreciates those differences. Last year, Monsanto Canada contracted Osborn & Barr, St. Louis, to handle its communications. This decision, according to Chambers, was driven by the benefits the company received from having a U.S.-based agency. But, "as in all communications, the target audience always comes first, and there are significant differences between the U.S. business and ours," Chambers says.

"By working with Osborn & Barr, we can share in the global learning of what growers in other areas are finding of value," says Chambers. "We can apply that learning and adapt our marketing plans for our Canadian audience."

Perry Graham, vice president of client services, Adculture Group Inc.
The uniqueness of the two markets has been recognized for decades. Perry Graham, vice president of client services with Adculture Group Inc., Milton, Ontario, says the move towards using Canadian agencies began in the 1970s. "At that time, many of the campaigns for advertising and public relations were coming up from the U.S., but when clients did their evaluations, they found that the markets were indeed quite different. Many of them began bringing on Canadian contacts and Canadian agencies." The result of this movement is a core of Canadian agencies "that understand the ag and food business really well, and have developed a skill set as strong as many of the players in the U.S.," Graham says.

So with a decades-old recognition of the differences between the Canadian and U.S. markets, and a number of experienced agencies ready to deliver insightful, market-specific agricultural communications, is the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of a centralized marketing strategy a worthwhile trade-off? "If the management structure is North American, there's a degree of logic that says marketing communications should be organized on a North American basis," says Harvey. "The watch-out in that one is that since (the Canadian market) is only one-tenth the size of the U.S. market, the Canadian differences can get undervalued."

THE SAME, BUT DIFFERENT

There are undeniable similarities between Canadian and American farm audiences. At first glance, it may seem that the only thing separating these nations of shared geography, media and trade is the world's longest undefended border. However, upon closer analysis, there are a number of key differences that could impact the effectiveness and relevance of shared communications and marketing.

The desire to use Canadian agencies and contacts, Graham says, is a recognition that selling agriculture and food products is a whole lot different than selling soft drinks or Tupperware. "We've got a unique market up here, with five distinct ag regions." On top of that, add different agronomics, unique products and varying distribution patterns. There are also the language barriers, political dissimilarities and very distinct regulatory environments. The complexity of the agriculture and food businesses, as well as their intrinsic ties to climate, result in a number of very different audiences - not just American and Canadian. One could make the same comment for any defined agricultural audience within any broad geographical area.

In the experience of Adculture Group, regional differences should always be taken into account when it comes to marketing. "What may look like an efficient thing on the books, in terms of 'let's just take this and apply it to another market,' has not generated the same degree of response within the market," Graham says. "That's why we've got an office in Ontario (for Central Canadian assignments), an office in Alberta (for Western Canadian work), and a third office in Quebec (for French work). We feel we need to be close to the market to understand not only its customers but also those who influence the customer."

And a failure to recognize market differences can have consequences. "There's a farm machinery ad that's running right now in Western Canada, where the field is visibly a cornfield," says Harvey, referring to the fact that the corn market in Western Canada is miniscule. "The context is wrong. So there's a loss of credibility right from the get-go, no matter how compelling the rest of the communications are." In the long-term, an oversight such as this can undermine the strength of the brand, Harvey says.

"I'm a global trader in outlook," Harvey adds, "but I do see plenty of examples where Canadian differences are undervalued and, therefore, less effective communication results."

SOLUTIONS

The fact remains, however, that the current agricultural economy is forcing companies and agencies to look at all alternatives that maximize efficiency and cost-effectiveness. So, if the decision is made to switch to an American agency, how does one go about recognizing and successfully capturing those differences between audiences?

While working with a U.S.-based agency, Monsanto Canada was able to incorporate those differences into their communications by ensuring the agency had a strong connection to the target audience. "There are so many differences between Canadian and American farmers that it's vital for us to maintain our Canadian focus," Chambers says. Osborn & Barr did so by opening an office in Winnipeg, Manitoba, staffed by Canadians "who have an excellent understanding of Canadian agriculture and experience in marketing to Canadian farmers."

According to Harvey, a successful Canadian campaign involves meeting three conditions. The first is an investment in gathering the insight necessary to capture the differences between markets. "At AdFarm, we try to emphasize the fact (to clients) that we start with consumer insights," says Harvey. "We have to understand the relevance of the differences between each particular audience."

Condition number two is a recognition that some of these insights are cultural - and that means they are doubly hard to get. Not recognizing these cultural differences can result in communications that just aren't relevant to the audience.

The third condition is a client who values these differences. If they don't, they'll resist the investment that is required to understand them, Harvey says. And while these conditions are very easy to articulate, it can be extremely challenging to put them into practice, which is why it is becoming increasingly common to see organizations market on a North American basis right from the beginning.

This search for greater efficiency in hard economic times is affecting all areas of agriculture, but as agrimarketers streamline communications, it's important to keep the message sensitive and relevant to the target audience. As Graham says, "It all comes back to understanding customers and recognizing that agriculture is a unique business because of the impact of where you live, the climate you grow in and the regulatory environment." AM

Simon Burgess is new media specialist at Issues Ink, a communications company based in Winnipeg, Manitoba.


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