David Sparling, Richard Ivey School of Business
Canadian agriculture has a tendency to spend too much time looking inward and not enough time looking at the rest of the world. Agricultural awareness is a prime example. Every year farm organizations spend a great of time and effort trying to create awareness about agriculture but what they are trying to accomplish isn’t always clear.
Let me illustrate. Open your medicine cabinet. Do you ever wonder who made your medicine or how they made it? How about the laptop or cell phone you use every day? If you are like most people you don’t. So why is food any different? Why is it so important for people to be aware of what farmers do? If we can’t answer that question then the industry is almost certainly wasting time and money.
The industry is definitely putting the awareness message out. A simple search on Google reveals that agriculture awareness hits are second only to health awareness. The number of awareness web pages grows every day.
|Industry name||Number of hit in a Google search for “industry name + awareness”|
|Agriculture||79.8 million pages|
|Food||34.8 million pages|
|Fishing||22.0 million pages|
|Banking||42.4 million pages|
|Car||53.7 million pages|
|Pharmaceutical||4.2 million pages|
|Health||176 million pages|
So the message is out there but is anyone listening? As a test I searched a number of
agricultural awareness postings on You Tube. There were many, but when you checked the
number of times they had been viewed it was often under 250 times each. The media savvy
public doesn’t appear to be tuning in to learn more about agriculture. Now compare that to
something like the video on a Kitty Litter Facial Mask. That one has been viewed over
643,000 times. It’s hard not to wonder how that can happen when farming is obviously so
much more important.
Anyone who studies consumers will tell you that, in general, consumers care about themselves and their loved ones. They pay attention to things that pique their interest or that might improve their lives. Consumers are also busy. Do they really need to pay attention to messages about who produces their food or how it is produced? They don’t.
The simple fact is that Ag Awareness is advertising and advertisers should be able to give clear answers to a few key questions. Who’s the target? What do you want them to do? What message will encourage them to act? Programs like Foodland Ontario have it figured out. The objective is to get consumers to buy Ontario produce and the campaign is highly effective. Companies like Frito-Lay place farmers in their ads to reinforce the quality and naturalness of their products and thus increase sales. Their campaign makes solid business sense. Events like fairs also blend business and fun while they increase awareness. Consumers go because they will be entertained.
However, for many agricultural awareness campaigns the objectives aren’t so clear. Take “Farmers Feed Cities”. It makes farmers feel good but what is a city dweller supposed to do with that information? Most people in cities assume that farmers produce the food they eat but they don’t feel compelled to know more and they don’t really need to even if we would like them to. If we were honest with ourselves we would admit that cities also feed farmers by providing markets for their products.
It’s time for us to rethink agricultural awareness. First, campaigns need to be very clear about why they are using awareness as a strategy to improve the industry. When consumers are the target the objectives should be clear – such as raising customer confidence in the quality of Canadian products, and thereby increasing the quantity they buy and/or the price they pay.
However, in my opinion consumers shouldn’t be the real target. Agricultural awareness should be aimed at farmers. Helping farmers and farm leaders understand consumers, their different and changing needs and how to better serve them will ultimately benefit the industry much more than trying to make consumers understand farmers. It’s the difference between “you should buy our products because they are right for you” and “you should buy our products because of what we do.”
And it’s not just about Canadian consumers. The Asian economies are expanding quickly and there’s a great deal to learn about the markets serving them well. We are falling behind nations like Australia. Successful companies and industries continually invest to connect with their customers and find ways to meet their needs. Agriculture should too. Markets will continue to evolve and our industry needs to keep up by understanding consumers and changing to meet their needs rather than trying to convince them of the value of what the industry currently does.
Awareness and knowledge are the starting point but within the agricultural industry, not just in consumers.