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As it happens, brand marketing began in agriculture. The practice of branding livestock to identify the owner goes all the way to the Middle Ages.

Fast-forward to the 19th century, when the Industrial Revolution moved production from local communities to centralized factories creating mass-produced goods. Factories were selling their products to a wider market, but the customers were often only familiar with local goods — a generic product had difficulty competing with familiar, local products.

Packaged goods manufacturers needed to convince the market that their products could be trusted. So companies used hot irons to burn their product identity — often based on a familiar icon — into shipping barrels, and the "brand name" was born.

Fast-forward again, 100 and some-odd years later, you can still start an argument between sales and marketing over the value of a brand name. And the mere mention of "corporate advertising" can generate apoplexy in beleaguered product managers.

The fact is, your company has a brand whether you realize it or not. Your products, your advertising and
marketing — and even your employees — already present a certain image to the world at large. You may come off as good, bad, ugly, large, medium, small, friendly, impersonal, smart, or not-so-smart.

Your customers receive this information, interpret it, form opinions, and make purchase decisions.

Your competitors and suppliers interpret the same information and form their own opinions, too.

Who are you? What does your company stand for? What do you believe in? What can you promise? More importantly, what can you deliver on? What makes your company different from anyone else doing this? These are basic questions you have to answer for each and every customer you win over.

In his book "Balanced Brand," (Jossey-Bass) brand consultant John Foley says there are three ways to establish a brand:
1. Let your customers decide who you are.
2. Let your competitors tell your customers who you are.
3. Actively position your brand yourself.

In other words, if you don't market your brand yourself, others will do it for you. And you might not like the results.

So be proactive, and get the most value out of your brand, because brands do have tangible value. Just check out a list of "Most Admired Companies" in any industry. See how their admiration index coincides with revenue figures.

Brand equity is money in the bank. And a strong company brand, or "umbrella brand" creates a strong platform for product promotion. It's the tide that raises all boats.

Here's why. Effective brand advertising affects attitudes and opinions. It helps you capture the prime locations in the locale that Trout and Reis call "real estate of the mind," in their marketing classic, "Positioning." Strong brands build trust, a critical element in purchasing.

Why is it that some people only buy Ford pickups, while others stick with others? Is it strictly thoughtful critical analysis? No way. They often choose one brand over another because that's what Daddy or Grandpa drove. It's what they trust.

A strong company brand can survive a poorly-performing product. Perhaps the greatest example of this is Harley-Davidson, one of my former clients. At one point in the 1970s, the company fell on hard times, due to an ill-considered corporate takeover. Quality suffered. But their customer base remained loyal, even though they knew the bikes weren't all they should be, because the riders believed nonetheless, "only a Harley is a Harley." Nothing else would do.

So now, you lean back in your chair, and say, "All well and good. But I'm not running some fancy-schmancy consumer brand. I've got to move tons of seed, feed, chemicals, or machinery."

As a matter of fact, a strong company brand has particular value in agri-marketing. (Grab your yellow highlighter and underline that last sentence). Consider what a strong brand can do in a market where the vicissitudes of weather and end-market supply/demand can torpedo the sales figures for a given product, regardless of how good it is.

For example, a soybean grower plagued by a drought may be more inclined to blame a bad harvest on the weather, rather than a trusted brand of seed or crop input. A grower who has less faith in a brand is going to think twice about going back to the same products. Just as a strong brand can provide peace of mind for your customer, it gives you a safety net against forces you can't control. (Grab that highlighter again).

Is it strictly for rational reasons that growers who own a green tractor would never ever buy a red, orange, or blue one? Or vice versa? Even major purchases like these are heavily weighted by emotional considerations.

So when is the best time to use a company brand campaign? First, whenever you want to reinforce or remind the marketplace. For example, if you're a market leader, under attack by a bunch of Johnny-come-latelys, a brand campaign is a good way to remind the marketplace who the Big Dog is. If you're a Big Dog, it's good to bark once in while anyway, just to let 'em know you're around.

If you're looking to change your company's position in the marketplace, brand advertising is an effective tool. You may want to change your market position due to new products, new technology, or even new management. Get out and ring the bell.

Finally, you may simply want to claim a position in the marketplace, if you have low awareness. I once created a campaign for the window manufacturer who was ranked 9 in the market. We compared our brand with the big three brands, and neatly leap-frogged window companies 8, 7, 6, 5, and 4. Sales increased 20% in a year.

Here's another example of how a company brand can support product sales. United Phosphorus, Inc. (UPI) is one of the world's leading post patent chemical manufacturers, with operations in 20 countries. UPI's North American operations are among the fastest growing in the world. They've been a Broadhead+Co. client since 2004.

When we teamed up with UPI, the post-patent marketplace wasn't getting much notice. Most of the post patent companies were unknown to customers — product awareness was even lower.

But there was an important story to be told. The $7 billion crop protection marketplace will be 80% post-patent by 2010. The post-patent companies, selling generic versions of the same chemistry, are driving down prices. It's great news for customers.

So how do you differentiate yourself from the competition in an environment of similar products?

Our primary objective was to raise the awareness and credibility of the new post patent category, and then claim a leadership position for UPI within that category. The "Value Revolution" campaign defined the benefits of post patent crop protection and elevated UPI above the competition.

Six months into the campaign, awareness of UPI had increased from 7% to 22%. More importantly, sales growth exceeded company projections and continues to rise.

A strong company brand is more important to you today than ever before. Why? In the global marketplace, your customers have more choices today than ever before — whether you're marketing feed, seed, chemicals, machinery, or financing. And a recognized and trusted brand can be like a welcoming beacon in the night, when it comes time to actually make the purchase.

You don't need a huge ad budget to establish a brand. You just need ingenuity. Surround your customers with information. Create a higher energy level. Keep feeding the market new messages about your brand, and you will build broader and deeper connections to a larger number of people. Keep messages consistent with your brand personality. Most important of all, your message must have meaning for your audience.

One critical consideration before you start any brand image campaign is managing expectations. Branding is a long-term investment. You have to make a commitment. One of the worst mistakes is embarking on a branding campaign, and then pulling the plug three months later because quarterly sales figures are tepid.

So, maybe now you're convinced this can work. What's it going to cost? The best answer is to consider your company's long-term goals: three to five years out. What do you hope to become in that time? Based on those goals, what should you invest to get there? Just do the math.

Finally, keep this in mind, as "Balanced Brand" states, "Brands are the seeds of growth ... you reap what you sow." As it happens, this branding stuff really is all about agriculture.

Craig Roads is Creative Director for Broadhead+Co. , 612/617-7937.

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