Note: I took down the part of this post that referred to a particular meat company after realizing I had violated my own policy of posting blog that challenge the integrity of individual agriculture companies. I don’t consider Wal-Mart an agricultural company, and this guest post by my friend Scrapple isn’t about big companies anyway. It is simply a thoughtful piece about how small farmers might learn to develop more effective marketing strategies that allow them to compete with large companies (though not any particular company) that co-opt the small farm model of marketing local and organic food, grass fed meat, and other things that have been staples for the economic survival of small farms for decades. Here is the “meat” of the post:
The topic of what to do when big money moves in to a small, but rapidly growing, niche market like “local” or “grass-fed” foods is something I think about a lot. After all, our goal at Little Seed is to be one of those small, local family farms, so it’s logical for me to think about what will happen when we’re in the same position one day.
Big corporations and people with money have a long history of taking niche markets and exploiting them to the point where the novelty, or niche, is completely eroded. The key for small business owners is to maintain a level of differentiation that separates themselves from the big boys.
Direct Marketing Can Give You an Edge
One way to combat the encroachment of large corporations is through direct marketing. Know your customers and make damn sure that they know you. Establishing that relationship will bring loyalty and a sense of caring that no other company can replicate. So how can you create that direct connection?
1.) Harness the power of the internet
The internet makes direct marketing a heck of a lot easier than it used to be. If you don’t have a website, blog, facebook or twitter account you should set one (or all) of them up. Pick one or two and then slowly expand from there. It may seem intimidating at first, but not only will you will pick up new skills to help you grow your business, but you’ll also have more fun than you think. Customers looking for local food rely on the internet to identify nearby farmers, you need to be there to take advantage of that.
2.) Consider starting a CSA or a local buying club
CSA’s have really gained steam across the country in the past few years, and for good reason. They are a great way to build a community of loyal customers that would never leave in favor of supporting a larger corporate entity. As a consumer you get to participate in the success (or failure) of the farm. You also eat more seasonally, meet other members, get an opportunity to visit “your farm”, and, of course, you get to “know your farmer”. That sense of reconnecting without having to grow your own food is highly valuable for many people concerned about where their food comes from, but without the time/space/etc to grow it on their own.
3.) Open an on-site farm store
Having an on-site store gives customers the chance to come see exactly where their food is coming from. City folk love the opportunity to visit a farm and see where their food is coming from. They also relish the opportunity to speak with a farmer. As a farmer you get the opportunity to answer questions and explain why supporting the little guy is so important. That face to face connection is not easily replicated by the larger corporate farm.
4.) Host farm events
Dinners in the field, butchering, cheesemaking and other classes will draw loyal customers out to your farm and help you establish a lasting connection. The old saying is true: give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime. Teach your customers a skill and they will never forget you.
If you don’t want to offer a class you can do something as simple as inviting people over for a fall harvest. Put them to work! Many people in the city are yearning to get their hands dirty and would be happy to lend a helping hand.
The list could go on, but the short story is to get in front of your customers and make that direct connection.
Separate from the Herd
Differentiation is critically important for the survival of almost any business, but is arguably even more important for small businesses facing behemoth competitors.
Try New Stuff
Be creative, innovative and fearless. Don’t be afraid to try something new or test the waters in different markets. Some of the greatest companies in the world started by throwing a bunch of ideas out there and seeing what stuck. 3M started as a mining company and only through luck stumbled upon success in the sandpaper and abrasives categories. J&J similarly stumbled into consumer products (such as baby powder and band-aids) after a long history of being a hospital supplier. Trying new things and giving innovative ideas a chance can pay off. Take it slow though, don’t bet the farm on an unproven, new idea.
Find a Market Specialty
Consumers are impressed by companies that focus on producing a specific product. Being an “expert” in something can differentiate you from a big guy that sells everything. Specialty retailers can successfully compete against department stores, specialty food purveyors can successfully compete against grocery stores, and you too can find a specialty to help you succeed. Of course you have to back up your title as an expert, the worst thing you could do is make a claim and not be able to back it up.
Own an Attribute
Products are known for being unique. Find a unique attribute for your product and market it that way. Farmers may argue that they compete in “commodity” markets and that there’s no way to differentiate their products. That’s not true, commodities can still be differentiated through attributes. Beef and tomatoes may appear to be commodities, but breeds of animals, varieties of seeds, and many other interesting elements of your product’s heritage can create an attribute to help differentiate your product.
As an example, you can look at what Target did in the face of competition from Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart’s attribute is “everyday low-prices”. Target can’t win the battle against Wal-Mart by trying to beat Wal-Mart’s prices, it has to find a different attribute. So Target went with a classier spin, and many of you now may refer to it as “Tar-zhay”. This “mass with class” strategy ascribed a certain attribute to Target and separated it from Wal-Mart. You can do the same when facing a larger competitor with lower prices.
A Few Cautions
Be weary of growth. Growth destroys uniqueness. For some reason there is a constant desire among business owners to keep growing. If you’re going to be a small farm then you can’t also grow so much that you no longer fit that image.
Trying new ideas and offering new products is important, but don’t dilute your core brand with too many line extensions. If you truly want to be different you’ll need to have some focus.
Once you’ve established why you’re different be sure to stick with it. Be consistent and stick to your values. Make your values known and offer examples where you were faced with a tough call and decided to stick with what you believe.
At the end of the day I agree that it’s a major setback for the small farms near Belcampo, but I have faith in the little guy and I hope this discussion got your creative juices flowing. One thing is certain, when competition moves in you can’t sit still. You must adapt and change. Whether it’s changing your product offering, marketing efforts, or something else, you have to adapt to survive.
Little Seed Farm is the story of our mission to farm. You can read more about our journey at www.littleseedfarm.com.