THE CANADIAN BATTLE OF THE SEED BRANDS
Reprinted with permission from Germination, a publication of Issues Ink, Winnipeg, MB.
Strategic marketing has taken a whole new meaning for Canadian seed industry players. It wasn't long ago when marketing seed simply consisted of finding out what was working on Joe's farm down the road. Now, with a proliferation of new varieties, seed has become a big business with big margins, and that means a big emphasis on marketing strategies that sell a company and its position to customers. It's war - and the fight for brand recognition and loyalty is turning out to be a battle royal.
The fundamental differentiating device for seed companies is the brand - that combination of name, words, symbols, or design that identifies a variety and its source, and distinguishes it from competitive products.
As the number of seed varieties proliferates, branding has become an even more integral ingredient in the marketing mix of product, price, placement, and promotion. As more value is added to seed, prices also rise. But in some cases, branding turns the attention away from the pocketbook and onto the product.
Brands offer instant recognition and identification. However, even more important, brands also promise consistent, reliable standards of quality. This adds value to the product for both the consumer and the manufacturer.
Pioneer Hi-Bred is the seed industry's Coca-Cola when it comes to brand identification. Pioneer has been successfully marketing its brand of seed for the better part of the century, by emphasizing its strengths through a combination of placement, promotion, and quality product. It has never deviated from this approach since the early twenties. Despite the company's merger with DuPont, there's no risk of a "New Coke" here - the valuable Pioneer brand will remain intact. As Art Stirling, communications manager for Pioneer suggests, why mess with something so deeply embedded in the minds of customers?
Pioneer's branding strategy helps its ability to adapt its overall marketing approach to a changing environment. The company has long enjoyed the lion's share of the market. But with new technologies entering the game, that share is threatened. Stirling says that the company continually evaluates its strategy to remain focused on the Pioneer brand, and the brand's meaning to customers. "We are an aggressive marketer trying to adapt to a more competitive market. We do that by promoting our leadership in technology, leadership in defending the interests of the Canadian farmer, and leadership in communication."
In recent years, Pioneer has found success in taking a more personalized approach to differentiating its brand within the market. "We've gone from a one-size-fits-all mentality to a personalized one-on-one mentality," explains Stirling. The company used to mass-advertise, and now spends much of its resources on targeted, personalized communications. "We're spending less on full-color glossy ads, and more on knowledge, fact-based tactics such as public relations, newsletters, etc., to keep our brand top of mind."
If Pioneer is the Coca-Cola of seed, then Novartis may well be the Pepsi. Its attention to branding has cut into the market share of its competitors - a development Doug Knight, marketing manager, owes to creating a recognizable image. "We follow this up with regional target marketing for awareness to specific varieties," says Knight.
Novartis has been extremely successful in not only distinguishing its brand of NK corn from the competition, but also in creating a market that never existed. "As we launched our Bt hybrids, we were offering a solution for a problem our farmers never really thought about. The impact of the European corn borer was never measured - so not only were we marketing, we were developing a market."
In Canada's western canola country, AgrEvo is cited by many industry professionals as being the most influential marketer of seed of late. If a good marketing strategy positions a company first and foremost in the mind of its consumer, it wouldn't be surprising if farmers started chanting "InVigor" in their sleep. AgrEvo's focused message delivery has not only earned it awards, it is fundamentally changing the way customers make their seed purchases. In fact, the campaign has been touted as so successful, that one retailer says his farmer-customers buy InVigor purely based on the company's advertising - an unheard of phenomenon a few short years ago.
CROP PROTECTION COMPANIES IN SEED MARKET
The entrance of crop protection companies in the seed market has pushed the limits on brand marketing, particularly in canola. "Seed companies are really taking a page from the herbicide companies when it comes to branding," says Joanna Karman, vice-president of Angus Reid Group's Agricultural Division. "This really didn't occur ten years ago."
"When you think back, Cyclone, Delta, and Colt all had names," adds Karman. "Now we're seeing a shift away from the name of the variety to branding the product line because it's simply too expensive to recoup that investment by marketing each individual variety." Companies are promoting many varieties, each with a maximum market share potential of maybe two or three percent. The days of market domination by one variety are definitely over.
Add a fragmentation of information to this market, and guaranteeing a brand is reaching customers can be a challenge. "It's no longer clear that there is one information source," says Karman, "so companies are dabbling in them all."
Seed companies are indeed taking a broad approach to delivering messages, as they try to gain brand recognition and loyalty. The new "darling," as Stirling puts it, is the Internet, and as farmers begin to turn to the Net for ag-related information, seed companies are scrambling to make their presence known.
BROAD SCOPE MESSAGE DELIVERY
Novartis is one company that has developed an extremely comprehensive marketing site. The recent launch of www.nkcanada.com0 promotes the company's NK varieties on an interactive site that growers can customize for their own region. "We spent a lot of time preparing our site, and feel it is an outstanding way to provide good information," says Knight. "As we were talking to our customers, we were finding that the Internet was a way they wanted information." By making their site a source of that information, Novartis is pushing NK as a brand of the future.
Other companies, while still having their identity on the Net, have chosen to tread more slowly. As Lionel Lamont, marketing manager, describes, AgrEvo hasn't dedicated the same amount of resources into its site as other companies have.
Instead, AgrEvo has focused on a unique way of making its InVigor and Liberty Link brands stand out by improving an old stand-by. The company set up a broadcast communication network to accompany its demonstration plots using a short distance radio transmitter. The customer could drive up to the site anytime and receive all the agronomic information they needed, when they needed it. "We had an overwhelming response," says Lamont, "because it was a new and novel source of information. It was a way for us to break through the clutter."
Besides adding radio waves, the crop tour has evolved to become a much more strategic marketing venue for seed companies. A saturation of tours has brought the war of the brand to the field.
"When it comes to tours, you have to make sure that they give something worthwhile," says Lamont. "So we compare our product to the next best alternative. Typically, tours have compared varieties next to the designated check, but AC Excel isn't even really grown anymore, so farmers aren't going to care how our variety compares to Excel - it doesn't mean anything to them."
RETAILER BRAND EQUITY
Yet branding doesn't simply stop with the grower. Along with the general shift to purchasing seed from grain companies, there is also a large investment being made in retailer brand loyalty. "Seed used to be solely distributed by the seed grower, but as grain companies have gotten more involved, they're in front of growers in terms of that channel of distribution," says Karman. Therefore, there is a much greater emphasis placed on marketing through the channel and establishing a good relationship with those distributors.
Knight says that Novartis invests heavily in marketing to retailers. To promote itself, the company seeks partnerships with retailers and encourages exclusivity in the outlet. It also spends considerable time on education and support materials for the retailer. "It's marketing on the front-line," he says. "We have to make sure that the retailers are supplying our customers with good, quality information."
Good, quality information over and over again. As Art Stirling sums up, a successful branding strategy is about solid messaging and constant repetition. Of course, it's a lot easier to penetrate the market when you've got large budgets at your disposal. However, does this mean that the battle of the brands can only be won by big companies with even bigger budgets?
Not necessarily. Although not wanting to give away any secrets, Rod Delahey of Heyday Communications is confident that smaller players will succeed, they'll just have to be niche marketers and incorporate some guerrilla strategies. In marketing warfare lingo, that means carving out a niche that one can defend successfully in the larger market place. "By being creative, and effectively using resources, these smaller companies have a great opportunity to get their names out there," says Delahey.
First Line Seeds is a textbook case of such guerrilla strategies. By finding a niche in with food-grade soybeans, First Line's NutriLine varieties skyrocketed in the minds of customers, and to success - a feat that resulted in President Peter Hannam being named agri-marketer of the year and probably precipitated First Line's alignment with Monsanto. AM
Erin Brand is publication manager for Germination, a publication of Issues Ink, Winnipeg, MB