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THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
IMC GLOBAL GETS BACK TO BASICS


OK, I admit it. If the folks at Microsoft had relied on me to buy all its high-tech products and services in recent years, there wouldn’t be many billionaires like Bill Gates around. Not that I’m a complete idiot and dinosaur when it comes to computer technology. For example, I did give up the typewriter a few years ago and convert to the PC. I don’t need all the bells and whistles. I’m a man with a simple plan.

Thinking about the basics of communication - from the simple word processing abilities of a PC, to a public relations program that gets back to the basic elements like weekly newspaper articles, a media tour, a dealer kit, etc. - is kind of refreshing for me. And that’s what impressed me about IMC Global’s Back to Basics program. It’s all about traditional public relations tactics that, by all accounts, have been extremely successful.

Working in conjunction with the Potash & Phosphate Institute (PPI), Norcross, Ga., and Bader Rutter & Associates, Inc., Brookfield, Wis., the Illinois-based IMC Global is re-educating its customers about nutrient use. The company, among the world’s largest producers and marketers of phosphate and potash crop nutrients, is doing it the old-fashioned way: good PR.

"The program really began during some uncertain times when producers were experiencing low commodity prices," says Heidi Holte-Nelson at Bader Rutter. "We wanted to create a positive and educational program for farmers that simply explained that you can’t sacrifice soil fertility levels in times of low commodity prices."

Public relations then became the driving force behind this effort.

TOUCHING THE BASES

"If you do it right, public relations, once the information gets out to the media, takes on a life of its own," says Randy Groff, manager of marketing and communications for IMC Global. "We wanted to touch all the bases with this program - newspapers, trade magazines, radio and television. If the information is newsworthy, weekly newspapers are hungry for the news. When you look at all the components of marketing, using PR is oftentimes the most cost-effective way to make information about your products available to the people who buy your products."

Groff says the term "Back to Basics" started on a smaller basis a couple years ago, but the program really took off last fall. The elements included a lot of marketing tools, with PR taking the lion’s share of time and attention. "IMC felt all along that a number of disciplines were needed to make this work," Nelson says. "It was on board from the start."

In total, the elements of the program included:

• Public relations, including media tours with major grower and retailer magazines, news releases to weekly newspapers and audio releases through the National Farm Broadcast Service.

• Direct marketing, including a dealer sample kit with teaser envelope, personalized cover letter from Dr. Ray Hoyum, vice president, market development and communications for IMC Global, tabbed folder to organize included educational literature, ad slicks and a news release for local newspapers, and statement stuffers for farmer/customers.

• Trade advertising, which was a four-color, one-page ad for ag dealer publications.

• Internet usage through a Web site - www.back-to-basics.net - with information about fertilizer use and other educational information.

• Face-to-face-marketing accomplished at the 2000 Commodity Classic in Orlando.

EXAMPLES

One prime example of the effectiveness of the program was a piece used in the Guest Editorial column of Ag Retailer magazine in April. In it, Hoyum told dealers: "We all have a responsibility to help growers make wise purchasing decisions. At IMC Global, we felt it was our responsibility to help dealers with this charge."

Getting interested in something new in the fertilizer business isn’t something that happens all that often. When you combine useful information, from a reliable source, the result is usually a win-win for the target audience and the company promoting the effort.

Another example is the weekly newspaper effort. From the Bunker Hills, Ill., Gazette to the Grant County Herald Independent in Wisconsin, newspapers across the Midwest picked up information about Back to Basics. "The local newspaper response really jumped out at us," Groff recalls. "That was the biggest surprise, I think. But if the information is timely and important, it will get used. Everybody in the industry is talking about cutting costs. This is despite the fact that a four-year Iowa study showed that 60 percent of growers were profitable because of higher yields, not by cutting costs.

"Our main message is higher yields. You get more money when you grow 220-bushel corn than 150-bushel corn. It’s simple mathematics. Sure, there’s a worldwide over-supply of corn. But an individual farmer isn’t going to see his own net profit increase if he cuts costs and the end result is lower yields.

"The grower is bombarded with information from all directions today. I think in all of this the basics of proper soil fertility has kind of gotten forgotten."

At the retailer level, Stan Buenzow of Co-op Country Partners, Baraboo, Wis., says the Back to Basics program was the right approach. "The message coincided with what we’re trying to tell our growers," he says. "Grow corn the same way, whether it’s selling for $1 per bushel or $5 per bushel. No matter the price, growers still need to go about the business of growing their crop. It was nice to see IMC support this point of view."

MEASURING SUCCESS

The age-old question of how to measure the success of any PR program is answered matter-of-factly by Groff. "You can’t say this program specifically resulted in more sales of fertilizer," he admits. "But, at the same time, I know the industry wasn’t expecting a real strong fall and we blew sales out of the box. Fall fertilizer sales were tremendous. And we continued the effort in the spring. More than 25,000 fertilizer dealers and other influencers received our messages at the right time. Did this effort have an effect? No one walks into a fertilizer dealer, orders phosphate and potash, and says, ‘I read in a magazine to do this.’ But I know this program had an impact."

Groff adds that there was an 11 percent response from retailers, crop consultants, ag lenders and university extension/county agents to a reply card put in the Back to Basics kit. "That’s the easiest way to measure it," he adds. "Lots of people commented and they liked and appreciated what we did."

"We were very pleased by the response," says Nelson. "The Back to Basics mailing wasn’t response driven, it was information driven, yet we received a flood of reply cards back. Most were from retailers. They told us they really like the information, many asked for more for use in grower meetings."

Nelson says she was also pleased with the results of the media tour. "Every publication was receptive to IMC’s message," she recalls. "That told us the information was newsworthy and important to their readers."

NEXT STEPS

Back to Basics returns this fall with more information and an expansion of the PR program to include farm managers.

Says Groff, "The education process never stops. This might not be a new message, but kids are growing up, taking over the farms from their parents. Every year there are new people who need to see this message."

Groff salutes Nelson and Herz and their Bader Rutter cohorts for a job well done. "It was a well thought-out and comprehensive package they came up with," Groff says. "This whole program is part of a value-added service to our customers. I know that’s an over-used term, but that’s the case here. And we believe it’s worked." AM

Den Gardner owns Gardner & Gardner Communications, New Prague, Minn.


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