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Branding. In every marketing textbook, in nearly every marketing article, the importance of branding has been emphasized for more than a decade.

Brands have been used as marks of identification, at various points in time, in all countries and civilizations. Illustrations of the branding of animals can be found on Egyptian tomb walls dating back as early as 2000 B.C. Our contemporary definition and use of the term "brand" has an origin deeply rooted in agriculture. Brands were considered the trademark for the rangeland, signifying pride of ownership in livestock. Later, when cattle drives drove herds north to market, hot iron brands were used to identify cattle for more practical reasons.

Today, brands have become deeply rooted in our culture, establishing an image, identity and trademark for the goods and services that we take to market. If successful, these brands can even represent the relationship or connection we have with our marketplace.

Which are the best brands in agriculture?

In 1998, Osborn & Barr Communications, St. Louis, a leading agricultural marketing company, and Marketing Horizons Inc., St. Louis, an independent marketing research company, began a series of market studies appropriately titled "SuperBrand." To determine the SuperBrand, the study identified the best overall brands across all agricultural categories relevant to row crop inputs, livestock feed, animal health, grain processing and other categories.

"The SuperBrand Study is unique because most companies that conduct brand research focus on single product categories," explains Osborn & Barr chief executive officer Steve Barr. "This research cuts across categories to show true 'top-of-mind' recognition and brand preference. And while producers always value characteristics like quality and customer service, the research also shows which attribute is most important for each product."

Osborn & Barr and Marketing Horizons have completed their third year of SuperBrand research, which was released in 2003. Conducted approximately every two years, the study includes in-depth surveying of more than 1,000 corn and soybean growers in 12 Midwest and Great Plains states. Respondents farm an average of 497 acres of corn and 495 acres of soybeans, according to the most recent study.

Using the insight into the agricultural market provided by this study, Osborn & Barr and Marketing Horizons guide clients in the development of effective brand management strategies. In the benchmark SuperBrand survey conducted in 1998 and repeated in 2000, producers rated John Deere as their most favorable brand - thus giving it the title of agriculture's premiere SuperBrand. Categorically, Chevrolet/GMC was named as the best overall brand for farm trucks, and Roundup made the SuperBrand list for herbicides.

In the most recent survey, respondents rated the importance of ten attributes in the selection of products for their farm. Rated highest was dependability, followed closely by a company that stands behind its product, product quality and overall value. Contrary to some schools of thought, being the lowest priced product was rated least important by producers.

"The results of this study confirm what experienced agricultural marketers have always sensed," says Barr. "Farmers put a high premium on quality and service and place much less importance on price. The most successful agricultural companies and brands are those which satisfy those needs."

The SuperBrand study also shows several areas where producers perceive no substantial differences in brands or their attributes. "This shows that there are enormous opportunities for agricultural suppliers to increase their market share through sound, strategic brand management," explains Mark Vogel, Osborn & Barr's executive vice president of brand management.

"Another interesting point of this study is that brand preference does not necessarily follow brand usage or ownership," Vogel continues. "There are several categories where respondents prefer another brand to what they own and show intent to purchase this preferred brand in the future. That's a true test of brand equity and obviously makes the future job of the brand marketer much easier."

In 2001, the SuperBrand study assisted Osborn & Barr in successfully predicting the not-so-pleasant future of dot-com businesses in the agricultural sector. "Almost nine out of 10 people in the 2000 survey rated 'the most qualified dealers or sales force' as a very or somewhat important attribute, while fewer than six out of 10 rated the 'lowest price' as very or somewhat important," Barr says. "This was an indication that those brands that pursue a low-cost, Internet-based marketing strategy would have a hard time building and maintaining support."

Barr emphasizes that brands must live up to their attributes. "Brands must deliver upon the customer's expectations, and products must deliver what the brand promises. Farmers demand that products perform 'as advertised.'"

Look for a review of the most recent SuperBrand study, scheduled for next month's issue of Agri Marketing, to learn the leading brands for 2003. To learn more about the SuperBrand study and how to strengthen your brand, contact Mark Vogel of Osborn & Barr Communications at (888) BELIEF-2. AM

Joseph Burns is a market planning manager for Osborn & Barr Communications, St. Louis.

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