All industries have a claim to marketing segmentation and specialization. And all marketing firms assert techniques and strategies that are most effective in reaching their audiences to raise awareness, drive sales and build customer relationships. Marketing to an ag audience is no different, other than it is, in fact, different. So, are farmers different from consumers?
The answer to that is yes — in the same way dental clinic owners, tattoo parlor entrepreneurs and jewelry store proprietors are different from consumers. Farmers do buy typical consumer goods like dishwashers and sneakers, but production agriculture is a business, so marketing to farmers is a B2B play.
To understand what makes marketing to farmers special, you must first appreciate the aspects of marketing that are anything but unique. There are fundamental truths in marketing that are shared regardless of segment or niche.
- A brand promise must always be unique, compelling and believable.
- Any single touch point in the product experience can make or break a brand.
- Marketing strategy, tactics and media must match the sales cycle.
- Buyers responses are emotional, not rational.
- Budgets must go further than last year.
- The logo is too small.
To move beyond the fundamentals is to tailor your strategy to fit actual audience behavior, which requires an intimate understanding of that audience. We know farmers because we spend time with them; walking dairy barns, riding in combines, hanging out at farm shows and machine sheds and sitting down at kitchen tables as often as possible. As an industry, agriculture evolves very quickly, so what you knew five years ago wouldn’t solve the marketing challenges of today.
Production farming is capital-intensive and technology-driven in terms of equipment, seed, agronomics, animal husbandry, markets and finances. Add to that a volatile marketplace for their products, an ever growing list of state and federal regulations and, of course, the weather. This shift in agriculture has created a stepped-up sense that farming is just as much business now as it was lifestyle 30 years ago. That change in audience is something you can only understand if you put your boots in the barn and take a seat in the cab. (And I’m not talking about a taxi.)
Who are these farmers anyway?
Modern production farms are most frequently multi-generational operations, which brings a special dynamic to their decision making process. In many operations there is a primary decision maker and multiple influencers, but some very large operations are run successfully by a leadership or management group.
The average age of a farmer is 58, but the older and younger generations are likely still involved in the operation. That middle generation appreciates the advice of their peers for some purchases, but they also invest time in reading the research, technical bulletins and reviews to make the best decisions.
The younger generation has a circle of influence that was developed during post-secondary education, and they lean even more heavily on university-led research. They exert influence over the older generation in direct proportion to the complexity of technology under consideration.
The senior generation brings the stability necessary to weather the volatility of farming. As with any industry, some fundamentals are unchanging, and experience often wins the day.
The role of women in farming has changed, too. Oftentimes the women in the operation are gatekeepers of information, share responsibility in making decisions, write the checks and spend equal time in the fields and barns. While this has been true in some farms for decades, women are now also stepping into an important role in connecting consumers to the farm. This makes them very digital and social, as well as a powerful influencer on all purchases.
Wired for progress
Because technology is necessary for the successful operation of a farm, farmers have a lot less fear of new devices and systems. Auto-steer, precision planting and fertilizer application, and grain yield monitoring have made complex technologies part of every day life. This comfort with hardware and software drives adoption of communication technologies, too. In fact, industry surveys show that high-acre farmers adopt mobile technology at a greater rate than consumers. Reliance on mobile facilitates better decision making and management of risk by making information available when is it needed. Because farms are often multi-generational operations, tech support is built in.
Business use of these mobile devices also drives a serious suite of apps for managing the farming operation. This has a profound affect on marketing to farmers in terms of all website development, search and media strategies.
As with any market segment, farmers have trusted media sources for decision-making information. The health of these media vehicles is essential to the viability of the businesses that serve the farmer. Without these information vehicles, there would be limited ability to make strong brand associations and build awareness.
To make the best recommendations it is essential to have a deep understanding of the individual media channels. We consider our marketing firm to be a partner in the health of that system and guard carefully the trust associated with it. To know your audience, you must understand where they get their information.
Weather, markets and what really matters
In the past, seasonality ruled many buying and selling decisions, which made the media calendar very predictable. Globalization and market volatility changed that as farmers have, out of necessity, become skilled at markets, futures, hedging and trading. Managing risk is the hallmark of a successful operation.
Earlier I stated that buyer responses are emotional and not rational. While plenty of research goes into any significant purchase, some long-standing purchase patterns die hard. Relationships with dealers and brands can span generations and that creates significant hurdles for challenger brands.
That’s the business side of the equation, but farmers are also conscientious stewards of the land, water and animals in their care. They are the people that volunteer for the fire department, coach t-ball, sit on school boards and church councils, send their kids into the military and remember to take off their hats when the national anthem plays. They know their neighbors and support each other when times are tough.
The road to understanding this audience is one we travel constantly and happily, as an agency must to be effective marketers. Over the years we have developed a passion for this audience and industry because of who farmers are and what they do. It’s a privilege for us to be a small part of the larger system that feeds the world.
The best marketing solutions you can find for your clients come from a practical understanding of their audience — an understanding that is developed over time and kept relevant through a constant connection to that audience.
Sara Steever is Vice President of Digital Services at Paulsen Marketing, an agency specializing in the agriculture and rural lifestyle markets. With an award-winning team of eight staff members devoted to all phases of development plus a full design and support staff, Steever oversees the creation of digital strategies for national and international accounts. She was named Top Innovator by Sioux Falls Business Journal and given the Creative Legacy award by the South Dakota Ad Federation. You can follow Steever on Twitter @ssteever.