THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
HOLY COW: BACK-TO-BASICS STILL GOING STRONG
, Den Gardner, Contributing Editor
In today's marketing communications "plan of the month" mentality where new "experts" are thrown into marketing communications positions set to change the world by getting messages out to the proper audiences, a program that is in its fourth year and still running strong is difficult to find.
But IMC Global, Lake Forest, Ill., has renewed my faith that there are companies that realize a public relations/promotional program doesn't have to die prematurely after three years, just because that was long enough to do it. There are companies that see a campaign doesn't need to end just because a new marketing communications guy takes over and decides he needs to put his own fingerprints on the company's communications program.
STAY THE COURSE
What is Back-to-Basics? It's a public relations/promotional program that began in 1999 in an attempt to provide timely and important messages to growers, retailers and other influential audiences about the basics of proper soil fertility. It was developed by IMC, with support (and credibility) from the Potash and Phosphate Institute (PPI), Norcross, Ga.
IMC, along with its marketing communications agency, Bader Rutter & Associates Inc., Brookfield, Wis., has kept the program fresh with new elements each year. The latest was a "Basics of Farm Life" photo contest in 2002. Based on photo quality, artistic expression, originality and best theme representation, four farmers received Bose Corporation music equipment as prizes for the contest.
"We were looking for new ways to bring the program closer to growers," says Bruce Herz of Bader Rutter. "Back-to-Basics has pretty good equity in the dealer community and with influencers. We felt we wanted it to mean more to growers."
Growers participating in the photo contest could go to the Web site to register. "Once they got to the site, they could see other information on soil fertility," Herz says. "That was the real benefit of the contest, exposing growers to all the material the Web site has to offer."
The Web site, www.back-to-basics.net, was created in 2001 to build an understanding of all the resources available to growers and fertilizer dealers. "It's all about making smart decisions by providing timely soil fertility information," Groff explains.
Since the Back-to-Basics program began, it has resulted in 14 feature articles in national ag publications, nationwide news releases placed in grassroots newspapers and regional publications, two segments on "AgDay" television, and a couple of segments with Orion Samuelson on WGN Radio, Chicago.
There also have been direct mail campaigns to retailers, county agents, crop consultants and farm managers. IMC says the response rate on Back-to-Basics was 13 percent, far above the 3 percent industry average. "Web site visits jumped by the thousands as a result," Groff says. PPI says the direct mail campaigns resulted in more than 1,500 requests for additional information.
OTHER PROMOTIONAL EFFORTS
Public relations can't take all the credit for the success of this effort. There were also 17 ads placed in trade publications aimed at dealers. In addition, Farm Chemicals magazine (now Crop Life) has done an eight-page poster insert each spring and fall for the last two years.
Other promotional tools included a postcard promoting the Web site, which was mailed to 19,000 influencers. In the spring of 2001, an information kit was sent to the same audience. Following that, more ads were placed in trade publications.
Groff and Herz believe strongly in public relations. Another important tool is weekly newspaper articles on fertility. "It's hard to put a dollar amount on that," Groff says. "You can't prove a grower bought fertilizer based on reading the article. But, if we bring them the facts in articles and tell them where they can go to get more information - the Web site, for example - it has to have a huge effect in the field."
Visits to major ag media have also been a part of the success of Back-to-Basics. "It was one of our most important tools," Groff says of the media tours conducted in 2000 and 2001. "Credibility is really important, and understanding balanced soil fertility benefits the whole industry."
Herz says that when you add up all the different elements of Back-to-Basics since its inception in 1999, a complete public relations package is the result. "When you look at the information we deliver in these tools - direct mail, ads, trade shows, the Web site, etc. - it's a total public relations message," he says. "It's public service information."
One major goal of Back-to-Basics has been to reach influential audiences twice a year - in the spring and fall. "Fertilizer use is a long-term decision, not a short-term one," Groff says. "We'll continue to tinker with the program, and we feel very good about that. Sure, the message changes a bit each time. It's our job to provide new twists to interest growers, dealers and other influencers."
Herz adds that education is the key. "Whenever we talk about the program, that one word - education - always comes up," he explains. "No matter what the economic conditions, farmers need to make the basics of a profitable crop production program a high priority."
As 2003 begins, look for more Back-to-Basics information. For example, IMC is finalizing details of a program that examines the impact soil fertility has on weather stress. But, the overall "balanced soil fertility" message will continue. "When something works, you stick with it," Groff says.
Editor's note: If you have an agricultural public relations/promotional program that's lasted more than a couple of years, let's hear from you. Send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. I may just write about your program too. AM
Den Gardner owns Gardner & Gardner Communications, New Prague, Minn.