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Evolution of Ag 2024

presentationDavid Lazarenko January 15, 2024
presentationDavid Lazarenko January 15, 2024


As I was preparing to write this fifth edition of the Evolution of Agrimarketing and was connecting with my usual sources of insight and inspiration, one of the comments shared with me kept coming to mind;

Just be spicy, Laz

For those of you who may not know Dave Hardy, our EVP of Creative and Digital Services (and long-time friend and colleague of mine), he is a brilliant agency veteran who brings the motto of “Be Spicy” to everything he does and to Think Shift as a whole (especially our brand, strategy and creative work). While I’ll go into his “Be Spicy” approach in detail below, it ultimately boils down to pushing the envelope and not trying to avoid the tension of saying or doing things that others might not agree with.

So, for this year’s Evolution of Ag, I’ve decided to take his advice and “call it as I see it”, unapologetically unpacking the Ag Brands Deserve Better philosophy that has lived at the heart of mine and Think Shift’s brand for the past number of years. A philosophy that I believe others should be embracing now more than ever.

To understand why, it’s important to know that Ag Brands Deserve Better isn’t just a marketing slogan. Instead, it’s a fundamental belief that for agriculture to achieve the seemingly insurmountable goals it faces (i.e., feeding a growing population an increasingly more complex diet on less land and with fewer resources), it requires ALL areas of the industry and ALL disciplines within them to “step up”. Agrimarketing is no exception.

As such, the days where agrimarketing could operate “behind the times” (i.e., where we were 3-5+ years behind other more progressive industries in adopting and leveraging new and better best practices), have come to an end and with good reason. For example, in the coming years, I could argue that agrimarketing will need to step out of the shadows of agriculture’s typically dominant business disciplines (R&D, sales and manufacturing), to become the next major driver of change in the industry. Change like:

  • list bullet bolt graphic Rapid adoption of new, better and more sustainable production practices.
  • list bullet bolt graphic Internal adoption of innovative technologies (like AI) to drive down rising operating cost.
  • list bullet bolt graphic Market adoption of new products and pricing structures (like SaaS models).

So, for this year’s piece I have focused on the seven areas of agrimarketing that I believe to be most deficient and in greatest need of elevation for the betterment of the brands, businesses and audiences we serve. Likewise, and more importantly, I have tried to call out/up the ways in which each of these areas can be quickly and effectively improved by embracing best practices currently in use in other industries.

I do hope you enjoy this year’s piece and take inspiration (and no offense) from it. Today, we’re exploring the key trends that will continue to shape digital marketing for agrimarketers in 2024.

Ag Brands Deserve...


Ag Brands Deserve Better Branding

Having worked on countless brands over my 23-year agrimarketing career, I can confidently state that the vast majority of them were deficient in one key area, differentiation. As one of, if not the most important tenant of branding, differentiation is critical to any brand’s value and success. However, it doesn’t take more than a brief scan of the brand landscape in agriculture to quickly and easily see that there are still very few (in my opinion, less than a dozen) well-differentiated brands across all segments.

Now don’t get me wrong, brand differentiation is something that a lot of industries struggle with. However, agriculture, which has a high concentration of brands for the size of the market/audience (namely due to the large number of “house of brands” strategies being taken), has really created a “brand soup” reality where names, promises and even visual identities all blend together.

So why is this the case?

In my experience, it comes down to two primary factors:

  • 1
    Product/service parity
  • 2
    Risk Tolerance

The first is the easiest to unpack and typically the main excuse for why differentiation “can’t exist” (which I don’t agree with). In most segments in agriculture, product/service parity is high because significant amounts of time, effort and investment have gone into creating offerings with the exceptional features and benefits the market/audience wants and needs. This is great as in most segments of agriculture, key features and benefits are now table stakes to competing and this means the customer’s risk of buying “bad” products/services is very low. That said, when features and benefits are all the same, doesn’t this mean that brands must also be the same?

No, because this is where risk tolerance comes in. There are many industries that operate at a very similar level of product parity (think of packaged goods, automotive and electronics) but have still managed to create differentiation amongst their brands. The primary reason they have been able to do so is because they were willing to take the risk and position their products, services and companies on the basis of a larger and more emotional/valuable promise than features, benefits and performance.

This is where Dave Hardy’s philosophy of “Be Spicy” comes in. As humans, we are hardwired to avoid tension because it can create conflict and even anxiety. Unfortunately, being different will almost always create some form of tension, but exceptional branding actually requires us to embrace it. As such, when working on branding, Dave Hardy is a huge advocate of taking things to the extreme just so everything else can “feel safe” by comparison. This is an invaluable approach you can and should take any time you are working on your brands and something you can learn more about here.

Spicy Scale

So, for the benefit of both your brands and the audiences they serve, it’s important that you learn to embrace tension and leverage it to push their promises and positionings into truly differentiated spaces.

The main reasons why agrimarketers aren’t effectively differentiating their brands is because they either believe they can’t or they believe they already are. Unfortunately, both cases are seldom if ever true.


Ag Brands Deserve Better Brand Strategies

My apologies for starting with two brand subjects in a row but given its importance to everything you and your organizations do, I believe it needs to be addressed first and foremost.

Now, for those of you who may be wondering about the difference between branding and brand strategy, while these terms are often used interchangeably, I have traditionally defined them as:

  • 1

    The act of positioning a product, service or organization for the purposes of distinguishing it from competition and creating perceived value amongst its target markets.

  • 2
    Brand Strategy

    The act of leveraging existing brands within an organization’s portfolio for the purposes of driving and delivering business results.

One of the biggest impediments to agrimarketing success is the misbelief that all brands matter. Just because they’re there, doesn’t mean they should be or deserve your time, attention, and investment.

I was taught many years ago that the best way to think about brand strategy is through the old adage “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. What this means is that by defining and executing the right brand strategy, an organization can use its existing portfolio of brands to deliver greater results overall than the sum of what each brand could deliver independently.

A fantastic example of this is Apple and the brand strategy they’ve leveraged for years surrounding the iPhone. While Apple sells many products and services, the one that has and will always get the most marketing and advertising attention is the iPhone. And this definitely isn’t because they need to generate awareness for it (given that it’s one of the most well-known products/brands in the world).

Instead, Apple focuses most of their attention on the iPhone as it has consistently proven to be the most leverageable product they have. The one that, once a customer owns it, is most likely to result in the additional purchase of all sorts of other Apple products and services.

In agriculture, this very strategy (which is only one of many brand strategies an organization can take) could work wonders to not only improve overall sales performance (through optimized cross-sell and upsell opportunities) but also to drive down marketing costs by reducing and/or even eliminating spend on brands that don’t require it.

Another non-Ag example to draw inspiration from is the many brand strategies automotive companies are leveraging to enter and compete in the electric vehicle space. A couple of the most prominent and successful examples include:

Hyundai and Kia leveraging future-forward design and technology to elevate the perception of both their electric vehicle offerings (as different driving experiences) and overall brand as a whole (as a leader in automotive).

GM using electrification to redefine, reinvigorate, and even relaunch their previously poor performing Cadillac and Hummer brands.

Ford’s controversial but successful decision to leverage their iconic Mustang brand to create immediate awareness and appeal for their first electric vehicle offering (the Mustang Mach-E).

So, if your marketing budget is traditionally spread across most of the brands in our portfolio, there is a very good chance that your efforts are devoid of a true brand strategy and you are therefore losing out on the opportunity to generate greater results from the same, if not even less spend.


Ag Deserves Better Customer Experiences

Throughout my career, there have been less than a handful of times where revolutionary changes have occurred that forced the very perspective of marketing to shift. Two great examples of this were the digital revolution of the 1990s and the e-commerce revolution of the last two to three decades. Fast forward to today, and a new revolution is already underway and being driven by both of the above.

While I will get into AI later in this piece, machine learning and doing is not the revolution I’m speaking of (though it is coming fast). Instead, as marketers, the biggest shift we all need to be aware of is the weight and impact customer experiences now have on buying decisions and what this means to everything we do from strategy to execution.

In a 2023 report, Harvard Business Review found that the majority of consumers (over 70%) now considered customer experience as the #1 driver of their purchase decisions. More specifically, consumers are now choosing the brands, products and services they spend their money on based on how easy and enjoyable it is to do business with them as opposed to long-time drivers like price, trust, loyalty and even features and benefits.

Better Experience

But that’s not all. For the better part of the last century and up until very recently, product/service features, benefits and performance were the greatest drivers of purchase decisions, along with price and brand trust and loyalty (which were both influenced by features, benefits and performance). However, today product/service parity has been achieved in so many industries and in so many ways that consumers simply expect great features, benefits and performance from anything and everything they buy (i.e., it’s now table stakes and no longer reserved to only the “best” products, services and brands).

So what does all of this mean to agriculture and us agrimarketers?
Three very critical things:

  • 1
    That our brands and businesses, even if equipped with strong products and services, can win or lose if the customer experiences they provide don’t cut it (i.e., having competitive offerings is no longer enough).
  • 2
    That brands and businesses with competitive, but not industry leading, offerings can still win if they can differentiate and deliver a better and more valuable customer experience.
  • 3
    That the comparative set for all agricultural brands and businesses has fundamentally shifted. More specifically, while customers will typically compare products and services within a category (i.e., seed versus seed, combine versus combine), they compare customer experiences across categories and even industries (i.e., how did my experience with seed company X compare to Amazon, to the Marriott, to Disney).

As such, while we have now moved into a space where an intentional and exceptional customer experience is no longer a nice to have but a need to have, it also means that a whole new set of strategies have become available to agrimarketers, strategies that can allow our brands and businesses to compete and win without the need for ultimate product leadership.

The competitive reality for all Ag brands and businesses has forever changed. We are no longer competing in a world where the best product always wins. Even if your product is great, if the experience to get it stinks, your customers will start to go elsewhere.

The competitive reality for all Ag brands and businesses has forever changed. We are no longer competing in a world where the best product always wins. Even if your product is great, if the experience to get it stinks, your customers will start to go elsewhere.


Ag Brands Deserve Better Results

Focus and prioritization are critical to ensuring that any marketing effort is achieving the specific results you want. Unfortunately, much of the agrimarketing that is reaching our audiences is still devoid of this and suffering as a consequence. To help shed light on this, I will provide a more specific yet very common example as it is one that anyone can benefit from fixing quickly.

As paid digital marketing/advertising has now become very prevalent in our industry, I love to gauge the focus and prioritization agrimarketers have applied to their paid digital efforts by looking for a couple of simple things:

Is there a single, clear and concise message being delivered?

Do I know what they want the audience to do?

This may sound overly simplistic, but these two questions can create a world of difference to the results you are achieving if you can apply and answer them correctly.

That said, the reality is that the majority of the executions that I come across fail either one or both of these tests in the following common ways:

  • list bullet bolt graphicThey are delivering multiple messages, to multiple audience, all within the same application.
  • list bullet bolt graphicThey are delivering unclear and/or overly complicated messaging (in many cases delivering more information than the medium can effectively get across based on the audience’s window of attention and effort).
  • list bullet bolt graphicThey are lacking a clear and/or have too many Calls to Action (CTAs).

Ultimately, what I see the most is paid digital executions that are trying to achieve too many things at once and therefore failing at most if not all of them because of it. For example, consider how different your results would be (and even the metrics you’d be using to measure success) if you split your paid digital efforts into just the following two areas of focus:

  • 1Awareness Generation

    If the priority of your marketing/communication effort is to generate awareness (of a brand, product, service, key communication, etc.), the focus of the execution should be capturing the audience’s attention and ensuring they consume a key message. As such, these applications should focus on prominent placements and creative that will draw eyes to them, and messaging that is as concise and clear as possible.

    If you think of these applications as Public Service Announcements, the priority is to deliver the message “in medium” as it can be very difficult to get an audience at the awareness stage to engage much further (i.e., as long as the message “Don’t Drive Drunk” is delivered in a PSA, the application has served its role). Likewise, and because of this, impressions will be an important metric as you will want to ensure that as much of your audience as possible has been delivered and consumed the message.

  • 2Audience Engagement

    If the priority of your marketing/communication effort is to drive your audience to another level of engagement (i.e., learn more on a website, partake in an offer, etc.), then the focus of the execution should be enticing an action. As such, these applications should focus on what action the audience should take and why it’s beneficial for them to take it (with creative and messaging that help to elicit the desired behaviour).

    If you think of these applications as “click-bait” (minus the negative and misleading connotations), you can envision the difference in the look, feel and messaging these would require versus their awareness counterparts. Likewise, you would also understand how clicks, pageviews, time-on-site and conversions would all be more appropriate metrics for these efforts.

So, do yourself a favour and start asking the two questions I’ve posed above on your paid digital efforts as you may very well be leaving better results on the table.


Ag Brands Deserve Better Creative

While creative is a very subjective topic, conformity isn’t. As such, when I say that agrimarketing deserves better creative, I am not speaking about the specific design skills and artistry that goes into creating marketing and communications materials, but instead the dangers of falling into the all-too-common creative trappings prevalent in our industry. And, to stay true to my “Be Spicy” promise, this definitely includes the “farmer in a field” imagery that is diminishing your returns every time you and others use it.

With that said, let me be clear that I have no issue with “farmer in a field” imagery. What I do have issue with is how common it is and the immediate effect that commonality has on your creative’s ability to stand out and get noticed if you use it. This is very much akin to the black sheep analogy where, in a sea of white sheep, the only one that will get noticed is the one that isn’t white.

Stand Out

Creative has both the power and ability to achieve so much. When done right, it can be downright magical. When done wrong, it can be at best forgetful and at worst damaging. It is our responsibility as agrimarketers to ensure we are leveraging creative to its full potential.

Creative is a powerful tool that when wielded properly can produce astonishing results, and for the most part in agrimarketing, we are only scratching the surface of its abilities, which include:

The power to differentiate

For example, the creative brilliance of the “Diamond-Shaped Shreddies” campaign allowed a boring, poor selling and irrelevant product to get noticed and compete again, without needing to change or upgrade the product in any way.

The power to evoke an emotion

For example, still to this day, one of the greatest pieces of emotionally driven, farmer-focused creative is Dodge’s “God Made a Farmer” campaign. Unfortunately, this was produced by a group of non-agrimarketers, and it too, from the look, tone, and even the voice, has now been copied by agrimarketers ever since.

The power to create lasting appeal

For example, when the Mini automotive brand was relaunched, it was done on the back of an award-winning creative campaign that used the medium in which the creative was running as part of the message. This campaign was so successful that the audience anxiously awaited and even captured and collected these different ad placements for posterity.

In general, I believe there are three reasons why many agrimarketers fail to leverage the potential of creative, and thankfully all of these can be overcome:

  • 1
    Creative is treated as an afterthought. This is best seen in the many ads and communication materials where the focus is on quantity, not quality (i.e., how much information, features, benefits, etc., can we fit).
  • 2
    Creative is directed by non-creatives. This is likely one of the main reasons why we still see so many “farmer in field” images in agrimarketing as there are many senior leaders and individuals with influence in agriculture organizations that may still believe that this is the best means of appealing to the audience.
  • 3
    Creative doesn’t push past the brief. This is best seen in work that looks great and is “on brand” but doesn’t do much more than deliver the message at hand (i.e., it may be lacking a central idea, emotional appeal, etc.). This is again where I would suggest you embrace Dave Hardy’s “Spicy Scale” and learn when, where and how you can push things to the next level.


Ag Brands Deserve Better Strategy

Let me start by stating what I believe to be the obvious, that generating awareness IS NOT a strategy. Likewise, training sales, engaging the channel, creating leads, earning media and converting prospects aren’t either. While these are all critical parts of agrimarketing, they aren’t strategies, or even strategic, as one can easily argue that they are all “must haves” (i.e., when was the last time you bought a product/service you weren’t aware of).

Generating awareness IS NOT a strategy. Neither are training sales, engaging the channel, creating leads, earning media, or converting prospects. While these are all critical parts of agrimarketing, they aren’t strategies, or even strategic, as one can easily argue that they are all essential pieces to any agrimarketing plan.

  • 1

    The decision to take (or not take) a specific course of action.

  • 2
    Brand Strategy

    The details for when and how that course of action will be executed.

In the above definitions, the key to understanding strategy is embracing the idea that it cannot exist without there being a strategic decision at the heart of it. A strategic decision differs from other decisions in three critical ways:

  • list bullet bolt graphicThe best course of action is not readily apparent (i.e., it is one of many and likely not the most obvious).
  • list bullet bolt graphicThe best course of action is controversial (i.e., one can easily argue for and against it).
  • list bullet bolt graphicThe best course of action is irreversible (or very difficult/costly to reverse).

Some applicable examples of strategic decisions (versus non-strategic decisions) include:

  • Non-strategic

  • Generating awareness.
  • Driving traffic online.
  • Creating a differentiated position for a new brand/product.
  • Incentivizing Ag retailers to help sell your products.
  • Strategic

  • Generating awareness solely through word-of-mouth.
  • Selling direct through online e-commerce.
  • Repositioning an existing brand/product.
  • Allocating 75% of budget to an Ag retail push strategy.

As such, in my history, I have seen A LOT of agrimarketing plans but very few strategies and it typically boils down to a lack of focus and prioritization. More specifically, given the finite amounts of time, resources, and investment we all have, the biggest tell that there is a lack of strategy is doing “a little bit of everything” (and adding more each year) instead of focusing on and leveraging a select few efforts to their fullest.

I encourage you to use the above to test the merits of your agrimarketing strategies, and if you fall into the camp of “a little bit of everything”, to push past the fear of eliminating efforts as history has forever shown us that we can achieve more by focusing on less.


Ag Brands Deserve Better ROI

While I’ve already discussed the need for agrimarketers to generate better results in section 4, here I will speak instead to the overall return on investment (ROI) an organization is achieving from the whole of its marketing spend (not just the results of specific efforts/tactics). And, for me, this may very likely be the most critical area of future focus for us all.

Let me start with a bit of easy math. As you know, there are only three ways to improve an organization’s marketing ROI, and these are:

To generate a greater return from a relatively steady marketing spend/investment.

To generate a steady return from a reduced marketing spend/investment.

To generate a greater return from a reduced marketing spend/investment.

In my experience, the focus for improving marketing ROI for the vast majority of agriculture organizations has and continues to be:

#1 increase returns at a greater rate/amount than marketing spend. Likewise, this focus typically only changes when organizations and/or the industry face challenges, resulting in a shift to #2 in the form of “budget cuts”. This means that #3 is the focus that I’ve seen the least, and unfortunately, it’s also the one that can generate the most significant impact.

That said, it’s not just the impact of #3 that makes it so critical in my opinion, it’s the fact that almost every external and internal trend in business and agriculture are pushing us to a reality where it will be an absolute necessity.

These trends include but are not limited to:

  • list bullet bolt graphicThe unprecedented effect that inflation has had on the costs of business and the inability to counterbalance this through price increases alone (i.e., margins will need to be improved through cost savings and efficiencies).
  • list bullet bolt graphicAgriculture’s inability to attract younger generations of talent into the industry’s workforce at a pace equal to the significant existing of older generations (i.e., resource constraints will force a focus on “doing less”).
  • list bullet bolt graphicThe scope, scale, and speed of AI innovation and its ability/capacity to reduce operational resources and costs (i.e., leveraging AI to offset resource costs and constraints).
  • list bullet bolt graphicThe mounting pressures for existing technological investments (like CRM, marketing automation, e-commerce, and SaaS) to generate significantly greater returns and efficiencies (i.e., moving from integration and high-level use to deeper adoption and business creation).

What’s most unnerving about this is the fact that, as agrimarketers, we’ve lived in a world where a focus on effectiveness (i.e., achieving results) AND efficiency (i.e., doing so with less time/effort/investment) has long been possible, but have simply chosen to prioritize the former much more than the latter. Even agencies are typically terrible at this as most have been built to get their clients to spend more, not less (i.e., full-service = more not better).

Creative is a powerful tool that when wielded properly can produce astonishing results, and for the most part in agrimarketing, we are only scratching the surface of its abilities, which include:

Stop more things than you start

As a great rule of thumb, for any new effort/tactic you are considering adding to your marketing efforts, force yourself to remove two.

Reduce your budgets before others do

Start your strategic planning process with a budget 25% less than what you had the year before.

Start from zero, not last year’s plan

I’ve spoken about this in the past (link to Zero Sum blog), as it is a critical step to ensuring that you aren’t immediately assuming that everything you did last year needs to carry-over.

I can’t stress enough how critical this shift in thinking is going to be to agrimarketing as I truly believe it will and should be the ultimate test of our abilities. As such, in an effort to save my most spicy comment to the end, if in the next year, you and your agency haven’t found a way to achieve this, give me a call as I’m more than confident that for every dollar you give Think Shift, we can help you find a way to save ten (and achieve greater results in the process).

As the softening of the Ag market continues, agrimarketers will be asked to do the seemingly impossible; to achieve greater results than ever before with increasingly tighter budgets. Unfortunately, the harsh reality is that this is simply asking of us what has long been commonplace for others.