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FINDING COMMON GROUND THROUGH SHARED SOLUTIONS (SM)
BUILDING BENEFICIAL RELATIONSHIPS STARTS WITH CAREFUL LISTENING
Members of the Altria/Morgan&Myers ag initiative are, front row (l to r): Linda Wenck, Robin Yuknis, Karen Potratz and Sherry Cerasoli; back row: Brad Shultz, Katherine Trent, Sara Sherlund, and Basil Maglaris. Not prictured, Judy Rupnow.
Philip Morris is known as a tobacco company, but few people - including farmers - recognize the companies of Philip Morris as leading purchasers of agricultural products in the United States. Agricultural commodities are primary ingredients in every product produced by the Philip Morris family of companies and its well-known brands, such as Oscar Mayer, Post, Nabisco, Maxwell House, Marlboro and many others.

"Prior to 1998, the relationship between Philip Morris and the agricultural community could best be described as 'buy-sell,' which is, fundamentally, confrontational," says Jay Poole, vice president of agricultural policy and planning. Poole is a Virginia Tech alum with agricultural roots. He's also a 15-year veteran of the Fortune Top 10 global holding company that earlier this year changed its name from Philip Morris Companies Inc. to Altria Group Inc. Poole's position places him in charge of Altria's agricultural initiatives on a global basis.

(Note to reader: Prior to January 2003, Philip Morris Inc. was the parent company of Kraft Foods North America, Kraft Foods International, Philip Morris U.S.A. and Philip Morris International. In January, the name of the parent company was changed to Altria Group Inc. The names of the various operating companies remain unchanged. For clarity in this story, we will refer to the parent company as Altria. Shared Solutions is a service mark of Altria Corporate Services.)

Earlier this year, the Philip Morris Family of Companies changed its name to Altria. (The Philip Morris identity remains with the tobacco company owned by Altria.) The Shared Solutions program is currently being carried forward under the Altria name.
"Philip Morris had long-standing programs directed to tobacco producers, but in '98 we took the first significant steps to strengthen relationships with U.S. farmers and ranchers beyond the tobacco-growing regions," adds Katherine Trent, director of agricultural relations. Trent manages Altria's ag program in the United States. "We made a proactive commitment to work with farmers on issues that affect both farmers and the company. It was a unique undertaking for Altria, but very consistent with new attitudes that were emerging among our corporate leaders for some time."

BENCHMARK RESEARCH SETS DIRECTION

Poole and Trent engaged Morgan&Myers, Jefferson, Wis., in 1997 to help bring their vision into focus. While several approaches were debated, the program really began to take shape when Linda Wenck, president of the firm's Milwaukee office and Altria account team leader, and Bob Giblin, the firm's director of research, hired Jefferson Davis Associates, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to conduct focus groups and quantitative research with the agricultural community.

"The initial benchmark research was both descriptive and prescriptive," Wenck says. It was used to define perceived needs of the agricultural community, identify criteria on which the company could build relationships, and evaluate current perceptions of Altria and other consumer products companies, says Wenck. Ultimately, the research established benchmarks used in planning. The quantitative research was repeated in 2001 to measure progress against the benchmarks set in 1998.

Altria supports Farm Safety Day Camps, one of the many Shared Solutions programs.
Using the research results as their guide, the Morgan&Myers/Altria team developed a multi-year plan and formally launched its Shared Solutions agricultural relations program in early 1999. The primary overall goal was to build Altria's reputation and to strengthen relationships with agricultural producers in a way that would enable the ag-based consumer products company to work jointly with agricultural leaders on issues of mutual concern.

The research helped Altria identify six issues common and important to both Altria and farmers - economic sustainability, creation of demand, consumer education, food safety, free trade and the environment. The research also helped prescribe shared solutions - that is, ways Altria could work together with ag groups to effectively address those common problems.

TARGETING THOUGHT LEADERS

Poole, Trent and the Morgan&Myers team recognized that they could not address the total agricultural audience, let alone establish meaningful working relationships with farmers and ranchers of all stripes. From the outset, the primary target audience was agricultural leaders, defined as influential or politically minded farmers and ranchers who serve on national, state or regional agricultural or commodity boards. A secondary audience included industry influencers and active farmers, between 27 and 60 years old, meeting minimum requirements for the size of their operations.

SPECIFIC OBJECTIVES, SPECIFIC RESULTS

The initial two-year plan was founded upon four specific objectives. To track the results two years later, a computer-aided telephone survey of 1,000 farmers in eight crop and animal production segments - including 245 agricultural leaders - was conducted in 2001. The results demonstrated that the program met and exceeded its performance objectives and provided prescriptive data for the continuation of the program.

After two years the number of farm leaders who recognized Altria as a leading ag-based consumer product company increased from 1 percent to 21 percent (unaided).

  • The percentage of farm leaders who associated Altria with working with agriculture on shared issues increased from 1 percent to 8 percent (unaided).

  • The percentage of farm leaders having a favorable opinion about Altria increased from 1 percent to 75 percent. Note that a minor wording change in the 2001 survey might explain the somewhat larger-than-expected improvement. Of the 22 percent of the farm leaders who were aware of the Shared Solutions program and could name Altria as the sponsor, 83 percent rated their opinion of Altria as "very" or "somewhat" positive. There were no negative responses.

  • More than 150 producer-volunteers were enrolled to work with Altria on issues of shared interest.

    THREE KEY STRATEGIES GIVE PROGRAM FOCUS

    "The aim of building useful relationships with the agricultural community was very broad," says Judy Rupnow, counselor and program leader for Morgan&Myers. "While the objectives were very specific, there were still many program options we could pursue. We ultimately settled on three overarching program strategies that kept us flexible but on target."

    Those three strategies: interdependence, relevance and engagement.

    "The 'interdependence' strategy is central to the campaign," says Trent. "It underscores the fact that food producers and ag-based consumer product marketers are all part of the same value chain and that we are reliant on one another. It explains why Altria is engaging with farm leaders.

    "The 'relevancy' strategy identifies the issues we have in common with production agriculture," continues Trent. "There are some areas where Altria and farmers may not always agree, but consumer education, economic sustainability, free trade, food safety, and the environment are all issues we can work on together with a common purpose.

    "The 'engagement' strategy assures that our programs are mutually beneficial, open and honest," Trent concludes.

    WILLINGNESS TO LISTEN

    As the accompanying graphic shows, the Shared Solutions program has numerous elements united under the campaign umbrella, many of which are carried out in cooperation with the American Farm Bureau Federation. "The American Farm Bureau took a degree of risk when they partnered with us," says Poole. "They were understandably skeptical of our motives. But they shared our vision, and we are both much farther along as a result.

    "This program shows the willingness of agricultural leaders - with whom we have no traditional relationship - to listen to one another. A key learning from our experience is that your stakeholders include your critics. Don't immediately assume that if you disagree, you still can't find common ground," Poole concludes. AM

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