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The agricultural industry has become increasingly more competitive, pushing marketers to find a point of differentiation in an eroding margin market. This has led to innovation and technology adoption within many product categories. But even with the most advanced technology, the competition will catch up quickly.

So what is a marketer to do in order to sustain market share and customer loyalty?

This is a key question. So key, that Osborn & Barr Communications, St. Louis, has invested in developing a separate agency called the Avant Marketing Group. Avant's sole purpose is to assist clients in strategically thinking about their business and to develop a game plan that will secure sustainable market share - not necessarily through technology improvements, but through properly managed brand development and execution.


According to Avant research, producers are interested in lower input costs, but only second to product quality and reliability. Avant sees this as a classic market for proper brand management.

"Too many companies have taken their brands for granted," says Michael Turley, co-director, Avant Marketing Group. "Brands must be updated and contemporized on a daily basis."

Turley says that brands must get back in touch with today's buyer values without migrating away from the brand's core values.

"We see so many brands attempting to be something that they really can't be - resulting in market confusion," says Turley. He adds, when confusion exists with a brand, it is nearly impossible for a customer to maintain trust in that brand over time. This is a fundamental problem when reliability and dependability is core to customer acceptance and loyalty.


Based on Avant's experience, both in the ag category and in other industries, companies begin to struggle with brand management as technology changes and breakthroughs increase. Less marketing is designated for brand development versus product promotion. As a result, many corporate brands are diluted by product messages. In the end, the company fails in the new product entry, as the product, its attributes and the corporate brand don't make sense to the customer.

"Brand dilution is one of the key issues that every CEO should be concerned about," says Mark Vogel, Avant co-director. "Once you lose the identity of your brand it is very difficult to regain or reposition. It can be even more costly than inventing a new brand in today's marketplace."

Vogel sees issues in two areas that need attention. First, as mentioned before, corporate brands are diluted when products that are not a natural fit under the corporate umbrella are offered to the market. Second, product brands lose clear positioning when attributes and messages fall well outside the original product brand's positioning.

"The most successful brands are positioned to be in alignment with the true values of the market segment that you want to attract," comments Vogel. "Opinions, wants, needs and attitudes can change dramatically over time, but true market values are nearly permanent and do not change radically over the lifetime of an individual. Brand dilution occurs when everyone attempts to position products (and brands) against the same product attributes. Brand values decrease, and we all end up marketing commodities to the same market."


All marketers should remember some basic ground rules for brand management and ask themselves the following questions:

If you had no product, would you still have loyalty to your brand? Think about it. If loyalty to your brand is only defined through the purchase of your products, then only your products define your brand. True brand loyalty is not about product, but people.

Neither the marketer nor the advertising agency owns the brand - the market does. Isn't that where brand equity resides? Valued brands value their market.

What is truly valued about your brand? How did the brand gain its current equity? Does your company still offer the same values today that gave it strength, or has your core values changed significantly enough that your brand no longer has value?

What percentage of your communication message is about product versus brand? Does the market really understand and know your brand well enough to create loyalty?

What do your loyal brand customers have in common? What are the buyer values that keep customers buying? Have you contemporized your brand enough to maintain equity with a large percentage of the market, or do you fear that your brand is becoming out dated in this rapidly changing market?

The agricultural economy will continue to keep the marketplace extremely competitive. Properly managed brands will not only provide differentiation in advertising, but can also distinguish companies and products to build loyalty upon. It's the difference between selling a product and marketing a brand - and it also may be the difference of marketing survival. AM

Joseph Burns is a market analyst at Osborn & Barr Communications, St. Louis.

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