Marketers selling to these farmers and ranchers must keep in mind that the industry is complex and dynamic; and marketing efforts, product introductions and product extensions must be tailored accordingly, said Ray Gilmer, group communications manager at chemical company BASF Corp., whose crop protection unit recently awarded its integrated marketing communications account to ad agency Mullen.
"What we’ve learned is that there’s no one-size-fits-all for American agriculture,” he said. "The expression about ‘Think globally, act locally’ couldn’t be more appropriate for farming, because it’s a very local or regional enterprise. We have to always be very aware that a program that sounds good for one region or one crop might not be appropriate for a different region or even a different crop just a few miles down the road.”
The industry has been consolidating for the past 70 or 80 years— a trend that affects the way marketers sell to farmers, said Steve Custer, who is exec VP-publisher at Farm Journal Media and handles research initiatives for American Business Media’s Agri-Council. In the 1920s, he said, one-quarter of the U.S. population lived on farms; today, less than 2% live on farms. Currently, he said, about 300,000 farms—or 17% of the farms measured by the agricultural census— do 85% of all the farm sales. "That consolidation is very important from a marketing standpoint because you have to know who to focus on to get the most bang from your efforts,” he said.
Contrary to popular belief, the 17% of farms that are responsible for the bulk of sales aren’t run by large, multinational corporations, Custer said. “Most are still family farms that have been very successful,” he said.
A TRULY B-TO-B MARKET
That said, it’s a truly b-to-b market, and marketers must approach it as such, he said. “It used to be more of a b-to-c market because farming was as much a lifestyle as it was a business,” he said. “But today, [especially with] farmers in that 17%, it’s clearly a business to them and they run it like a business.”
Though marketers have traditionally relied on print media to reach the agriculture audience, they’re now taking a multimediaplatform approach, said Jeff Lapin, president of media company Farm Progress Cos. “At the very core of what we do, print still forms the strong base of the way marketers are reaching that audience,” he said. "But surrounding that, they’re looking more at face to face and certainly digital. They’re paying attention to custom publishing and using database [and direct marketing] as a way to segment and target the audience. We’re seeing all that come together in an integrated way.”
In addition to print publications, farm radio remains a popular medium in rural areas, Gilmer said. "It’s their lifeline on market prices. It’s their lifeline on weather. It’s a lifeline even for call-in shows to discuss production issues and challenges,” he said.
The agriculture industry was slower to move online than other industries because of limited high-speed access in rural areas, but that’s changed, Custer said. "It’s been a lagging online market, but adoption and convergence [of media] are very much under way,” he said. "It is happening in agriculture; it’s just happening behind some of the other b-to-b markets.”
While there are still farmers who may not even have a computer, Gilmer said, there are also farmers—particularly younger farmers—who rely on the Web and technology for vital information. "Even mobile technology is becoming important because they’re in the truck, or the combine or out in the field, so a BlackBerry, or smartphone or any other device that allows them to check on weather, or status of orders or market prices—those have become essential tools,” he said.
Despite the way technology has changed the agriculture business, events also remain an important part of an integrated marketing plan, Gilmer said. "The trade shows are a place where you have to be,” he said. "You’re noticeably absent if you’re not there."