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Farming and Marketing Go Hand in Hand

by Steve Grinczel

Published: Friday, February 26, 2021

Decades ago, dairy marketing consisted of the producer's name and phone number painted on the side of the milkman's delivery truck. A produce grower might promote the fruit and vegetables in the back of his pickup truck by yelling through a rolled-down window while driving slowly through city neighborhoods.

Livestock, corn and soybean farmers had no need for public relations initiatives explaining why what they do is a good thing.

Fast forward to last Friday when fifth-generation dairyman Andrew Kuehnert, and others linked to Indiana agriculture, learned about targeted customer segmentation and storytelling during a webinar presented by Jack Marck, managing director of the Illinois AgTech Accelerator.

Using COVID relief funding, the Indiana Small Business Development Center, in coordination with the Indiana State Department of Agriculture, specifically targeted Hoosier agribusinesses with the workshop.

With margins so narrow, markets so volatile and competition for sales so fierce, farmers have to do whatever they can to get an edge when it comes to moving their goods, even if it means sitting through a college-level marketing lecture, according to Kuehnert, whose family-owned Kuehnert Dairy Farm is located in Allen County near Fort Wayne.

"It's about going through the process of trying to understand the strategy of the scientific methods," he said. "It's good to step back and look at it with a broad view. Anybody who runs a business needs to see what potentially could happen in the future.

"Every dairyman does that every day as it is; they look at what the milk price is and ask what's the outcome if this or that happens? The way I look at it, anytime I can get some free lessons, or free seminars or free knowledge somewhere, I might as well try to take it. With all the changes in information and technology, you have to adapt or you'll be left behind."

Like many dairy operations, Kuehnert Dairy Farm is considering on-site processing as a value-added expansion. It could bottle its own milk and someday sell products like cheese, yogurt, butter and ice cream directly to customers who visit the farm.

Before making a decision to move forward, however, it's important for Kuehnert to know which part of the dairy-buying public is interested in going to the trouble of making a separate trip to the farm. He also needs to know if there are enough potential customers out there willing to pay a little more for everything the buy-local experience has to offer.

"We're working with the next generation on farms, so it's critical to understand this stuff," Kuehnert said. "I know our farm, especially, has always been at the forefront of adapting new technology and understanding new ideas."

Market segmentation, Marck explained, is the practice of dividing the target market into approachable groups. Traditional commonalities, such as age, gender, religion and race, are no longer seen as reliable indicators of why people shop the way they do.

"Instead of trying to tell one story that appeals to everybody, you can tell your story slightly differently and tailor it to the audience you're trying to reach," Marck said. "I've actually not come across very many situations where (traditional demographic designations) were helpful in terms of making sure you're getting to the right audience—it makes too many assumptions."

Observing behavior is a better way to identify customers, since a majority of customers may agree on a favorite aspect of a product or operation regardless of age or other factors.

"You can have a group of people that's very different and with completely different backgrounds, jobs and lifestyle, but they all care about one thing that's the same thing for all of them," Marck said.

Storytelling is the way ag producers can connect those dots.

It may not seem that an executive living in the suburbs and a homesteader out in the country have much in common, but they do if knowing exactly where their milk is produced, how the livestock is treated, the quality of the products and who is filling the bottles matters to them.

Faced with intense competition from manufacturers of bottled water, energy and sports drinks, tea, coffee, smoothies, plant-based alternatives and carbonated beverages, dairy farmers have been especially progressive when it comes to getting their story out to consumers by creating websites and through social media.

Producers across the board are also taking it upon themselves to heighten awareness about the efforts they're making with regard to sustainability, conservation, water quality and the ethical treatment of animals.

One way businesses, including those in agriculture, are setting the narrative is through a persona, or fictional character, who personifies a particular operation. Such storytelling could revolve around a day in the life of "Joe the farmer," for example.

"A 'customer segment' is sort of like this cold, sterile, clinical term, but 'Joe the farmer' has a very different sort of feel to it," Marck said. "You embody your segment and those attributes in a person—a fictional person, but a person nonetheless.

"You can imagine, then, that all of your marketing becomes conversations with Joe. Starting with that very personable approach sets the stage for much more effective communication because you're no longer dealing with this cold, clinical segment, you're dealing with Joe."

In the case of Kuehnert Dairy Farm, consumers are often dealing with Andrew, who in 2013 created the 300-cow operation's Fall Festival that features a corn maze, interaction with calves and other activities. As the 2019 American Dairy Assn. Indiana's Milk Person, he handed the traditional bottle of cold milk to the winner of the Indianapolis 500.

"I think we've done a good job of telling our story," Kuehnert said. "Every fall we have a lot of people coming through and we engage with them, showing them what dairy farmers do and what we're passionate about. Creating that emotion with the public is the biggest thing. You're selling your way of life more so than your product.

"What got me geared up to watch this (webinar) was to see some different takes on it and some of the reasons why behind it. Any dairy farmer that's left in the business nowadays has to be passionate and dedicated to what they do, otherwise they wouldn't be in the industry."

Through his research, experience in marketing and product development and personal observations, Marck said he has reached a conclusion some may find controversial.

"People do not make decisions based on rational argument," he said. "This is based on academic research (and) by experts in negotiation and psychology. What they actually do is they have emotional reactions to things, and then they rationalize that emotional reaction."

Super Bowl commercials are famous for the way they relate big business, including some with an agricultural angle, to the common consumer. Farm operations can do the same thing at the local level.

"Your story should evoke emotion in the people that are reading it," Marck said. "Yes, all of your data and statistics, and all of the hard science behind why your solution matters are all very important and they feed into people's decisions.

"But you absolutely want to build an emotional connection to your audience. That has to be a part of your story."

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