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THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
COTTON TOWN USA WEAVES A WAVE OF PUBLIC RELATIONS INITIATIVES FOR BAYER CROPSCIENCE
Cotton Town USA. Has a nice ring to it, don't you think? In fact, it could be the name of a new television series, maybe a reality show on one of the networks. Or a city motto somewhere in cotton country across the southern United States. Well, it's neither of the above.

Dermott, Ark., was one of three communities chosen as Cotton Town USA in 2002. Shown (l to r) are Floyd Gray, mayor of Dermott; Harold Comstock, Bayer CropScience sales represntative; and Betty Morris, nominator.
What it is, however, is a program of Bayer CropScience, Durham, N.C., and the National Cotton Women's Committee of the National Cotton Council of America, Memphis, Tenn. And this public relations/public awareness program is in year two of its efforts to grant $10,000 to three communities in cotton-growing areas of the country to fund community improvement projects.

"The ultimate goal of any communications program we do is to establish a relationship with growers and get closer to them to meet their product needs," says Al Luke, insecticide/PGR manager for Bayer CropScience. "If we can get closer to our growers, we can better market our products to them and for them."

Bayer believes in an integrated marketing approach to get products in the hands of its growers. "You can't have a single position in terms of marketing," Luke says. "We looked at this program and decided we needed to find a way to take a PR approach and tie it in to our other marketing programs."

The program was conceived two years ago by Aventis CropScience, which, as most of us know, merged with Bayer last year to become Bayer CropScience. The "new" Bayer CropScience picked up the program.

The company and the Council were thrilled with the interest in year one. More than 80 communities submitted applications for grants.

The program is funded by sales of several Bayer products sold in the cotton market, including Temik insecticide, Baythroid insecticide, FiberMax cotton seed, Finish harvest aid, Trimax insecticide and others.

Floydada, Texas, was also a recipient of a Cotton Town USA grant last year. Shown (l to r) are Monte Williams, vice president, Floydada First National Bank; Pat Bradley, branch manager, American State Bank of Floydada; Dora Ross, nominator; Bobby Gilliland, mayor of Floydada; Merle Morrison, NCWC Southwest regional director; Russ Perkins, Bayer CropScience technical representative; Shara Dee McCaleb, NCC field service representative; and Gary Brown, Floydada city manager.
"Cotton Town USA allows local communities to demonstrate their commitment to the cotton industry," says Luke. "Bayer is proud to add value to cotton crops with our products and also to cotton communities with these grants."

COTTON COUNCIL INPUT

The Cotton Town USA promotion is an excellent consumer public relations program for the National Cotton Council, says manager of public relations T. Cotton (yes, you read this right) Nelson.

"The Cotton Town program by Bayer goes hand-in-hand with the Council's campaign to get the American public to recognize the contributions the cotton industry makes to the overall economy and the nation's health," Nelson says. "Cotton Town USA parallels that by recognizing communities and their contributions. These rural communities are the backbone of our country. Cotton is the 'economic fabric' of these communities. We applaud Bayer and its communications people for this economic and morale boost to cotton communities."

Last year, Dermott, Ark.; Floydada, Texas; and Stamford, Texas, were the three communities chosen for the grants. The nomination form requires communities to show why they should receive the grants and what they intend to do with the money should they be chosen. The only real restriction is that cotton be grown within a 10-mile radius of the town.

The community also must submit an essay on how it exemplifies a "Cotton Town USA."

Dermott is using its funds to create and furnish a community room for civic functions; Floydada is creating a community technology center for its citizens. Stamford is using its grant as seed money to purchase a Cotton Town Cottage - an old house it plans to restore to preserve the historic heritage of the town.

INTEGRATED MARKETING

In addition to developing the strategy behind Cotton Town USA, the execution and implementation of the program are handled through one of Bayer's marketing agencies, Rhea & Kaiser Marketing Communications, Naperville, Ill. Rhea & Kaiser, along with Bayer, has been busy promoting the program throughout cotton-growing areas. It began back in January at the Beltwide Cotton Conference. It is using traditional PR methods to get its message throughout the South. Information also is available from National Cotton Women's Committee representatives and Bayer field sales folks and others.

According to Rhea & Kaiser president Steve Rhea, Cotton Town USA really strikes a chord with the public - the time was right given the pulse of the industry.

"Cotton Town USA was conceived because challenging times called for a program that could generate excitement, increase awareness of the importance of cotton and give back to cotton communities," Rhea says. "Bayer CropScience stepped up to the plate and introduced a program that reaches even beyond the ag community. This is a kind of program that elevates the Bayer CropScience brand and the value of its products."

The Cotton Council helps promote the program through its own communications tools. It also helps judge the applications and then assists in publicity efforts afterwards.

Luke knows a program of this magnitude and commitment of dollars needs field and product management buy-in to be effective. "A program like this should have a nice fit and commitment from our sales force to be effective," he says. "When some of these types of communications programs are initiated, we use sales reps as an informal sounding board to make sure it fits their needs at the end-user level. Comments from those folks are very important."

As might be expected, local sales reps are made part of the presentation process for winners.

As most know, the cotton market (as well as most of the farm economy) has been less than stellar in the past few years. That's why the Council believes these types of programs are just the remedy to give rural communities a shot in the arm.

This is exemplified by one community applicant from 2002, who said in the essay: "Whatever the outcome of this application and selection process, we appreciate your generosity in funding grants that will prove to be so helpful to small cotton-dependent communities such as [our town]."

This type of marketing approach can have plenty of arms and legs as consumer media love a "feel-good" human interest story of this kind. "Anytime we promote our Cotton Counts initiative we try to mention the Cotton Town USA program," Nelson says. "Promoting from our end gives the program a little more credibility and weight."

Traditional PR tactics were used after the winners were announced in November. News releases were sent to print and broadcast ag media, as well as local media. Releases also were included in the 2003 Beltwide Cotton Conference media kits.

WINNING CUSTOMERS

This year's winners will be announced in the fall. Communities have until July 1 to submit their applications. In the meantime, Bayer will continue to look for innovative ways to reach its customers.

Luke admits a program like this is difficult to measure, but Bayer uses informal measurements such as qualitative and anecdotal information to see if the program hits the right target. "There's no magic bullet," he says. "We look at this as part of our overall integrated efforts, talk to growers and informally visit with our reps and the Council to get a feel for its success."

No PR program can be measured only by pounds or gallons of product sold. Amidst all the consolidations and mergers going on in the ag industry, cotton growers, in this instance, need to know that those companies left in this market are interested in the socioeconomic aspects of rural America.

"You have to reach the grower from different angles," Luke concludes. "We wanted a visible program to promote Bayer products and the contribution it makes to the cotton industry." AM

Den Gardner owns Gardner & Gardner Communications, New Prague, Minn.


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