Damaging the Farmer Brand
By John Phipps
It's hard to have any kind of discussion without sooner or later touching on the concept of the "brand.” For example, reams have been written about the power of the Google brand. In politics, commentators opine endlessly about whether the Republican brand is damaged. And, of course, any forward-looking business plan just about has to include "re-branding.”
Farmers have a brand—a remarkably successful one, by some measures. Polls show us to be well regarded by the public, for instance. In fact, consciously or not, we have leveraged our brand for years, to manipulate our relationship with customers and the general public.
A new image. The brand farmer draws deeply on a historic and, frankly, flawed image of who we are. Farmers are uncomplicated, predictable attendants of very large gardens. In this vision, they are hard working, scrupulously honest, old-fashioned innocents— one of the last repositories of American social virtues. Many farmers center their lives on family and, in general, struggle to cope with circumstances such as weather and variable markets that other sectors take as everyday business factors. For the most part, farmers scrape a hard living from their lovingly tilled farms.
I think we may be in for some changes to our brand—both self-inflicted alterations and overdue evolution. For example, the recent farm bill debate raised significant questions about how many farmers actually resemble our brand image. Relentless and widespread criticism of subsidy amounts and distribution has linked the brand with political suspicion. And the income figures for grain farmers in 2008 will stun our hard-pressed fellow citizens.
Ethanol-fueled image. The food and fuel debate has contributed another perhaps inadvertent brand change. After decades of repetitive linkage to inexpensive food, we now have taken our brand out of the grocery bill discussion. My perception is the public now accepts that farmers are only tenuously connected with food prices. Like many brand attributes, this is far from the whole truth, but accomplishes a perceived goal.
The fallout from this brand shift may not be fully understood for some time, but distancing farmers from food is a radical shift. While it may seem to offer some shelter from blame for food inflation, it separates us from a powerful consumer affinity, even as the food industry is gaining new importance in their lives.
Self-inflicted damage. Closer to home, we are arguably doing even greater damage to our brand. This summer some grain buyers discovered that integrity within our ranks is for sale. Exploding grain markets reached a tipping point. Country elevators that had operated for years with simple phone agreements for forward sales were stiffed by producers who couldn't seem to remember the cash contract sale they made last December.
A multimillion-dollar judgment was awarded against a large operation for failure to deliver, as the producers deployed shrewdly constructed legal entities to shuttle assets out of reach. For grain buyers, at least, the farmer brand is deteriorating.
Disparity between brand perception and reality is not unknown, of course. In fact, it is a frequent goal of political brands, for example. It carries enormous risk. Farmers who undermine our brand either by deliberate deception (subsidies make food cheap) or outright fraud (my corn only made 80 bu., so can we forget the rest of the contract?) need to understand what the consequences can be.
Contrast farmers with attorneys. Studies have shown many attorneys leave the profession simply because they tire of the jokes and public antipathy. Public esteem is no small psychological benefit. The effect on our economic efficiency is even more obvious. Replacing trust will involve transactional complications that consume time and money.
To be sure, the farmer brand was outdated in some ways, but it still engendered respect in public minds. It is an asset of profound importance, and should be mindfully preserved by openness and honesty. Once damaged, it will require generations to repair.
John Phipps, email@example.com, is a sixth-generation farmer from Chrisman, Ill. He is the TV host of "U.S. Farm Report.” For local station listings, log on to www.agweb.com.
Top Producer, September 2008