Someone I follow on Twitter is an organic farmer (@friendthefarmer). He knows I work in branding and asked an interesting question recently: “How do we make farmers heroes like chefs or rock stars?” I grew up on a farm in the Midwest and can’t imagine my father even considering the idea of becoming a brand name. But it is an interesting question: why no “rock star” farmers?
The challenges are threefold, I think.
First is relevance. Consumers were traditionally more interested in food that was consistent, convenient, “tastes good enough” and “low cost”. Increasingly though, consumers are factoring a larger set of attributes into their purchase decision: where the food came from, who produced it, how it was produced, what chemicals went into it and on it, the carbon footprint of creation and shipping. The relevance of sustainable food is changing and folks are more interested in who created it.
The second challenge is one of scale and distribution. In order to become a nationally known brand requires the ability to grow and distribute enough stuff (be it beef or peaches) to satisfy demand. For many farmers, this scale is just not possible, either physically or financially. In order to deliver on the promise of fresh (and most likely, local) it would require a network of farms and producers – much like the Blue Diamond nut brand, or time to organically grow the business, production and perception hand-in-hand.
The final challenge is one of ‘breaking through the clutter”. Traditionally, big brands have needed “platforms”: think Coke’s TV commercials, Rachael Ray’s cooking shows, Wolfgang Puck’s restaurants. And platforms like that have been expensive. But this challenge is also changing. Although there are costs involved in farmers markets and on-line activities like Twitter, increasingly the customers who are interested in sustainable food (see challenge #1) are finding those producers at their local farmers markets as well as on-line.
I’m lucky living in Northern California. If anywhere is blessed with great food and an appreciation for great food, it’s here. And there are “brands” that are known and appreciated for what they make or raise. If you love bread, you know Acme Bread. Beef? Niman Ranch, please. I can even point you toward the sweetest peaches and nectarines you’ve probably ever had. (Frog Hollow Farm, but let’s keep that between us.) So it wouldn’t surprise me if one or more of these ‘breakout’ as they continue to grow both production and brand perceptions. But one wonders if by becoming a nationally known food brand, they begin to undermine what made them relevant and differentiated in the first place. What do you think?