Kari has been asking for a post about marketing. I have to do this two ways and both are more conceptual than concrete. (I may offer more concrete examples another time but I think that subject is already saturated.) First we’ll discuss Marketing for Business then Marketing for Sustainability. You’ll see how those two ideas differ as we go but there is one thing in common: You have to meet your customers where they are.
Marketing for Business
Customers won’t come find you. They won’t magically appear at your farm gate and they won’t make immediate and radical changes to their buying habits. It seems easier to convince someone to change religions than to convince them to change diets. You have to find them where they are. Offer them something that looks like their concept of food but is superior in every way.
But sometimes…just sometimes…someone will go through some sort of crisis. They may join a gym or read a book about Paleo or something and suddenly they have stopped buying donuts. With all that disposable income and the encouragement of their newfound literature and peer support groups they will begin to ask, “Where can I buy a whole chicken and what do I do with it? What is a deep freezer? How do I cook with an oven?” They will ask friends at they gym, friends at work, friends at church. Somebody knows somebody. That somebody may know you. And that’s the best way…word of mouth. But you have to start somewhere. I have gotten years of business from customers and, later, their friends by initially giving away a single dozen eggs. There are times when we are swamped with eggs and we don’t know what to do with them all. So we give eggs away. At this point we throw a free dozen into a customer’s order if they will promise to pass a second free dozen to a friend. That normally results in a new customer…if you have dotted your i’s.
How do you dot the i in an egg? People don’t talk about ordinary products. Ordinary products are just too ordinary. You have to bring the WOW! to get word of mouth. Soon you’ll see pictures of your food on FB or Instagram. Customers will text you pictures of your eggs frying next to “Free-Range, Organic Brown eggs from the store” and will express wonder at how pale the competitor’s egg is. But the truth is that store egg is not your competition. In fact you don’t have competition. If those are eggs then you produce something else. Same with chicken. Same with pork. Same with beef. That product you have is so superior to what people are used to…it’s like you are producing something else. Not a commodity, real food. Real quality. And people will talk about it.
Three years ago our van was stolen (and 5 dozen eggs in a nice small cooler!). I searched for its replacement on CraigsList. We took the whole family on the test drive with the owner. As I merged on to Lindbergh he said, “So…what do you do?”
“I am a computer guy. But we have a farm and raise chickens, turkeys, goats and pigs on pasture.”
Fast forward a few minutes.
“Chris, that was the most interesting test drive I have ever been on. I’m sold. How can I buy your product?”
Turns out he is a foodie.
Three years later he is still buying from us. He has given eggs to friends, neighbors and co-workers. He buys and smokes chickens and turkeys. He makes soup with our spent layers. He buys pigs and splits them with neighbors. He builds my customer base every time he changes jobs. We can count on him to spread the word. In a way, he is a partner in our growing business and has become a friend. And he’s not the only enthusiastic customer we have.
Several times he has pulled me aside and said, “Chris, I bought a chicken from X or from Y but they aren’t the same.” Heck, he continues to buy our eggs even though he belongs to a CSA that includes eggs. He says ours are better.
So, it’s all about the quality.
But if it’s all about quality it is also all about the price. Keep in mind there are alternatives on the market and remember cost has nothing to do with price. Cost is important to you, the producer. Prices are set by the market. Customers have price expectations. They expect to pay more for quality but you can’t be too far out of line. Consumers are price sensitive and allowing for that puts you in position to meet them where they are…to at least get within waving distance.
That said, there is a theory that if you’re having trouble moving product you should raise your prices. If nothing else the higher price gives your product a psychological advantage. Also, I can tell you from experience, customers are thankful when you lower prices and hateful when you raise them. Try to start at the high end of what the market will bear. We started too low (cause we didn’t add up our costs and allow a margin).
We make quality products and charge what customers indicate are reasonable prices. We rely on word of mouth and give out free samples in times of surplus. If you can do that while operating efficiently your business will grow. That’s all there is to it. Give away a few eggs to get the door open. Then sell a chicken to get your foot in the door. Then, before you know it, you are in the kitchen and, later, selling beef, pork, lamb and chicken to the whole neighborhood.
As long as you can keep up with the workload.
Marketing for Sustainability
What will happen to the farm when I’m gone? My labor? My dreams? My herds and flocks, the trees I planted…who will care for them? Who will continue the work here? I fear the vision is becoming hazy. Where I used to feel invincible I am often intimidated by the staggering amount of work ahead of me. Our dream (a dream I have in common with my ancestors) needs an injection of fresh blood. Youth. Energy! I am a steward, not an owner. I await the next steward.
We will never be sustainable unless new generations stand up and take the reins at regular intervals. That takes serious marketing success or they will all move away. The farm will be sold and, worse, spent. I need my children to buy into the dream, to share our vision and to move things forward. So let’s share some vision.
You know what I want? I want to spread manure on the pastures to build up future fertility so we have more nutritious, more drought-resistant forages, healthier cows that breed back every year and a beautiful place to spend our lives together. I want birds and ponds and fish and frogs and snakes and ducks. I want blueberries and gooseberries and raspberries and dewberries and strawberries. I want hazelnuts and walnuts and hickory nuts. I want cows and pigs and chickens and foxes and raccoons…well, maybe not raccoons. I want painted buildings in good repair full of feed and bedding. I want a beautiful, welcoming farm that family and friends can visit to feel refreshed. I want an efficient, smaller home with an open floor plan that is easy to heat, easy to cool, easy to clean and comfortable to entertain in and I want the house filled with our children and their children and laughter and games and food and lots and lots and lots of books.
How do I get there?
I go where my customers are now. I meet their needs where they are. Right now.
My kids are playing Minecraft right now. Even if they aren’t actually playing the game I promise at least two of them are sitting with graph paper and designing the castles they will build next time they can play. The others are reading library books either on the couch near the fire or on the couch in the front room near the electric heater. What books? I don’t know. They read so fast it’s almost impossible for me to even keep track…but I still try. My two older kids usually read at least a book each day (the library limits us to 70 books at a time…per card, BTW).
So that’s where my sustainability customers are.
Now, I could leave my kids there. They would be entertained, I could get some work done…or do some reading…or take a nap. But did Julie and I have kids so we could keep the computer busy all day? They aren’t an accidental by-product of recreational activity! No. We had kids because WE WANTED KIDS!
We wanted to be asked “Why?” questions and we wanted to clean up messes and we wanted to spend decades growing with and learning about them. What are they like? Who are they on the inside? What do they like to eat? What are they interested in doing?
You know what they are interested in doing? Right now they are interested in a specific game. So I am also interested in that game.
Because that’s how marketing works. If your customers want to play golf you play golf. If they want dinner, you go to dinner. If they want to build floating castles in the sky out of emeralds you go to your crafting table and make a pickaxe.
I need to build real connections with my customer base. This is more than just appreciation for the quality food at a reasonable price. This is me inspiring my children to achieve more than I can.
I’m taking the first step. I’m giving. Reaching out. I can’t wait for them to come to me…they might out of a sense of obligation but obligation doesn’t inspire vision.
But let’s say none of my children want anything to do with the farm as adults. OK. Let’s say that. It hurts me but we can pretend. Then what? Then I go to plan B: Grandchildren, nieces and nephews. It worked for my grandma. But what if I had no siblings and no children of my own? Then what? Then it’s incumbent on me to go out and find a protege. To mentor someone. To pass on our vision and continue the dream.
I have to go to them. I have to give away the best eggs in the world. I have to be generous with my time. I have to go short on sleep to go long on parenting. I have to read what they are reading and play what they are playing and continuously build connections over the decades. I have to make time to serve the people who matter the most and wash their feet. (I don’t know that I’ve every heard Jesus used as a sales example but it applies. The idea is that He came to us.)
I have to meet them where they are.