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BEST OF SHOW - PUBLIC RELATIONS
WEST CENTRAL CO-OP'S ACCOMPLISHMENTS, AMBITION ON DISPLAY
West Central isn't your average co-op. For nearly 100 years the company has been adding services, expanding businesses and developing new technologies that have placed it not only at the forefront of its industry, but as an influential figure in many others. West Central has taken the idea of a co-op to a new level - and needed an annual report that would do the same. The report needed to serve as a culmination of all the co-op's hard work, not just from the previous year, but also from years past.

The report was to be on a grand scale, without losing the personal touch the co-op was founded upon. It must be an annual report that, like West Central, rejects the "standard" idea of basic letter-and-financials, cut-and-paste corporate content of traditional publications. After all, this is a company that has five distinct divisions, that is revolutionizing the field of biodiesel and that has quietly grown into a true world leader from Ralston, Iowa - population 98.

So it is easy to see why one of the main goals for the annual report was to put the company on the map - while many of its small-town locations, quite literally, are not. According to Sarah Dorman, communications specialist, West Central Cooperative, "Our objective was to really build up the image of West Central, to give our member-owners a look at what they have helped to create. It's not so much a sell-up as it is an actual window into what we do. For some, this may be the first time they hear about all the functions of West Central. Many members might know only one aspect of our business - whether it's agronomy, grain marketing or any of our soy-based value-added products."

The annual report is also an important tool to sell members on the still-increasing potential of the cooperative. "West Central had a very successful 2003 and 2004, but we're certainly not content to just 'keep up' - as I'm sure each of our members wants to be as successful as they can be. We wanted to use our annual report to get people excited about the great things to come and to recruit new members," says Dorman. "We want people rethinking what a co-op can do."

In order to capture this spirit, West Central turned to its Ames-based creative marketing firm, Innova Ideas & Services, advertising arm of The Sigler Companies. "West Central wanted us to tell their story," explains Graphic Designer Sarah Teske. "They came to us with the challenge of turning photographs and articles into a dramatic, sweeping piece. We needed to find a way to bring a level of sophistication to the project that some might not normally associate with a small-town co-op - especially considering the global nature of the business. Of course, we had to do this while still neatly organizing the entire publication so information is easy to find and even easier to read. You can never sacrifice the audience for the aesthetic."

DESIGN TO ENGAGE AND INFORM

The theme of the annual report demonstrates exactly what makes West Central so successful: "Seeded with Principles. Grown with Innovation. Cultivated by People." According to Dorman, "West Central was built on principles, the cooperative continues to grow because of its innovative ways and it's strengthened by the people it employs." Because of the unique ownership situation of cooperatives, it was crucial to immediately recognize the value of West Central's people - whether it's the CEO or one of the 3,500 farmer-members. After all, without them there would be no annual report.

Dorman explains that the annual report is the centerpiece for communicating with cooperative members and business partners, both active and estranged. For some members, the West Central Annual Membership Meeting (where the report is introduced) may be their only in-person contact with the cooperative throughout the year. "The annual report is also designed for use as a marketing piece to potential business partners and potential investors," she explains. "If people are looking for a reason to join West Central - or a chance to get more involved - the annual report is where they will find it. So many other marketing pieces speak to only one aspect of our business. The final product gives readers a chance to see what West Central is all about - and what the future holds."

In fact, readers can literally see "into" West Central, thanks to a special die-cut acting as a window into the co-op's operations. Thick, soft-to-the-touch paper was used for the cover and section dividers. Each of these sheets then features the bold West Central "W" logo die-cut, which looks directly into an artistically treated series of photographs throughout the publication.

Color also plays a large role in the presentation. An introductory watercolor portrait of farming scenes breaks down each section, and following page colors are selected from images in those scenes. The red of a tractor, the green of a leaf, the yellow of a sunset - they all serve as the backdrop for the report's body copy. Complementing this arrangement of color and content are several black-and-white photographs. It's a soft, personal approach to the layout, something important to the people of West Central and to the central theme of the annual report.

It's an annual report as diverse as the company it represents.

PROSPERITY THROUGH DIVERSITY

West Central is a farmer-owned operation that's gone far beyond the idea of a local co-op. There are 23 locations throughout Iowa, employing more than 200 people. It markets more than 65 million bushels of grain annually. It processes more than 130,000 tons of feed each year. It manufactures and markets the nation's leading soy-based biodiesel product, SoyPOWER, and it produces the dairy-herd feed ingredients SoyPLUS and SoyChlor.

Through its products and partnerships, West Central has become a world leader, an innovator, an inventor, an advocate, a crusader, a neighbor - and yes, still a local co-op. Its annual report needed to reflect this wide range of roles without overwhelming readers and underwhelming investors.

SURVEY SAYS...

The annual report was distributed at West Central's Annual Membership Meeting, along with a survey to garner response to the piece. The survey was a quick, convenient solution for measuring the results of the marketing piece. Dorman says the reports were very well received, for some a real highlight of the evening.

Some comments Dorman received in regard to the annual report included "It was beautiful" and "We enjoyed seeing what new developments West Central is working on." She notes that 78 percent of the attendees found the information interesting and informative, while many also indicated they found the facts and figures presented to be the most enjoyable part of the evening - even more so than the social hour and free food. In addition, members unable to attend the meeting received a copy in the mail.

West Central plans on using the meeting surveys and other valuable feedback in planning future annual reports. Once again, the true spirit of the cooperative shines through, as member-owners' input will play an important role in the upcoming decisions of West Central.

UNCONVENTIONAL APPROACH, UNPARALLELED RESULTS

"We had a spectacular year, and our member-owners deserve to know that. They can definitely see it in the immediate quality and organization of our annual report," Dorman says. "Our publication not only serves as a celebration of our success - it serves as a beacon of things to come."

The plan all along was to create an annual report to raise awareness and maybe a few eyebrows at the same time. Dorman and her marketing team were well aware of the risks of creating an unconventional annual report for what is considered a conservative audience. "We took a chance on an upscale, more progressive style and it worked - just like in 1933, when a handful of farmers took a chance on an idea to buy and sell grain in a small town called Ralston. Looks like it paid off," she explains. "And thanks to the annual report, everyone can plainly see it's still paying off today." AM

Corey Johnson is senior copywriter for Innova Ideas & Solutions, Ames, Iowa.


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