If you’re connected to agriculture, you’ve undoubtedly experienced the current downturn in our country’s agricultural economy. Farmers, ag retailers, agribusinesses providing production inputs, ag financial services providers, ag media organizations and those of us providing marketing communications services to the industry are all adjusting to the new normal.

Recent quarterly financial reports from publicly traded agribusinesses cite “significant economic headwinds” or “a difficult and challenging sales environment” as the preamble to their numbers falling short of expectations. Oh, what a drastic departure from those “go and grow” days just four short years ago!

As industry analyst here at Paulsen, I study ag production, the ag economy and agricultural marketing, and I visit with as many industry people as possible to get a feel for what’s going on and where things are headed. From these conversations I see several interesting trends.

First, contrary to what many people think, there is still spending and commitment to marketing programs in our industry. However, there has probably never been more scrutiny or more careful evaluation, with an eye toward measurable results and overall return on investment, before a marketing expenditure is approved. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it simply requires all of us to look for even better ways to measure the effectiveness of our recommendations.

A second trend I’ve noticed is a back to basics approach by many of the clients and prospects we visit with. During this time of adversity, many agri-marketers are taking a very close look at their brands and what they stand for. They’re asking insightful questions:

  • What’s the perception of our brand in the marketplace?
  • What are we best known for?
  • How are our products perceived? Should our product positioning change? Why?
  • What are our competitors doing that’s different?
  • How are our sales and technical staff being received in the field?
  • What do our dealers need to be more successful?

And probably most important, they are taking a closer look at their customers and really analyzing their wants/needs/barriers/frustrations and motivations in purchasing one brand versus another. Good old-fashioned fundamental research—the blocking and tackling of the marketing world.

There seems to be a strong demand for the answers to these questions. Savvy agri-marketers see that right now—during this downturn in the ag economy—is a great time to embark on this investigative process to sharpen their marketing plan and identify those hidden opportunities. When the inevitable turnaround occurs, they will be ready with a plan and a program to grow sales and market share.

In response to this trend, Paulsen has created a Brand Activation Plan, a well-defined process by which we help a company answer those brand, competitor and customer questions, and make specific marketing recommendations. It’s a valuable marketing tool that has helped several clients more clearly focus on their marketing and sales efforts.

Although it sounds like a worn-out cliché, hard times do make us stronger and smarter. The current ag economy has forced all of us to do more with less; to think deeper about strategic and creative solutions. The end result is more emphasis on true customer engagement, which is a good thing for all of us in agricultural marketing.

Remember, for those with staying power, the tide always comes back and this too, shall pass. We’ve just recently seen glimmers of hope in the corn and soybean markets, and a survey of 400 farmers participating in the Purdue University/CME Group Ag Economy Barometer indicates the outlook is improving.

So now is a great time to take a good, hard look at your brand, answer the difficult questions and be better prepared to successfully compete, no matter what this agricultural economy throws at us in the year ahead.