PSA: About Marketing (Part 1)

In building a new website for our farm, we spent a lot of time viewing how others promoted their farm products. We saw a disturbing trend: the adoption of marketing schemes and tricks practiced by the slick advertising firms connected industrial agriculture.

Stock Photos

One of the more common sleight of hand marketing practices is the use of stock photos from a download service like Shutterstock. Sellers will post beautiful photos of “their” products on their websites and social media. When a person does a simple search for the image, they find that it is a stock photo taken by a professional photographer. These images can be purchased, downloaded, and published. They do not represent the actual product being sold. A knowledgeable person recognizes that many times grass fed beef sellers will post pictures of grain fed beef - but they do make a website look slick. Corporations like McDonald’s and Burger King are criticized for using photos that do not look like their actual products, should not small businesses hold themselves to a higher standard? With every modern cell phone having a high quality camera, there really is no reason for someone to not show pictures of their actual product.

Use of Superlatives

Words like “best”, “most”, etc are superlatives. They are often used in marketing to say one’s products are better than everyone else’s.  It is common to see “The best <insert product type>” or “The most… “, when looking at labels and advertisements. But like many tricks used in marketing, it is meaningless. It is meaningless to claim a steak is “the best tasting” or “most delicious”, when individual tastes vary. What is the best for one person can quite possibly be the worst for another. And not a single direct marketing beef producer has ever had their steaks compared to all their competition. Moreover, it disparages everyone else in the market. It is demonstration of arrogance. Basically, it is an empty claim that cannot be backed up.

Use of Buzzwords

If you are in sales or advertising long enough, you see marketing buzzwords come and go, much like fashion styles. Most buzzwords often start off as an accurate description of a practice. But as other producers take notice, the use of the word becomes widespread. That doesn’t mean the practice becomes widespread, just the use of the words. And as the words become more commonly used, they lose their meaning, becoming nothing more than a marketing tool. Many of these words evoke a feeling for the consumer that the purchase somehow contributes to the greater good. “Sustainable” and “regenerative” are two of the most recent commonly used examples of buzzwords. And even “sustainable” is falling out of vogue. Basically, “good stewardship” has been rebranded.

Redefining Common Words

This is really a sub category of buzzwords, as redefined words become popular and more commonly used. Words and terms like: pastured, natural, free range, etc. The successful use of these words depends on the consumer’s preconceived definition of the words.

Example #1: “pastured” relies on the consumer’s traditional and idealized definition of the word; animals having unconfined access to clean palatable forage, 24/7. The image that is conjured in their mind is one of animals roaming freely on lush tracts of land, eating when the mood hits them. Yet, when used by chicken producers it means that 100 birds are confined to a 100 square foot moveable cage. Generally, the cage is moved once a day. As the birds grow, what forage is proportionally available inside the cage becomes less, quickly soiled and becomes impalpable.  Thus, the definition of “pastured” is changed. In reality there is very little difference between what some producers call “pastured chicken” and commercial chicken, especially if the producer is using commercial Cornish x birds and commercial feeds. One is in a small moveable barn that doesn’t need to be cleaned. The other is in a large stationary barn that needs to be cleaned.

Example #2: When we first started selling beef directly, we marketed as “Grass Fed Beef”. Customers understood that by using the term that our cattle never received grain, eating grass on pasture only. After a couple years, more farms were selling beef directly, claiming their beef was “Grass Fed”. Several of these farms were actually feeding grain, saying that “All cattle are ‘Grass Fed’”, which is technically true. But they don’t mention the grain feeding part of their regimen, leading customers to believe their product is something that it is not. Thus, the response from those actually raising grass fed beef was to adopt the term “100% Grass Fed Beef” to describe their product.
Now, with even more producers in the market place, we are seeing “Grass Finished Beef”, sometimes “Grass Fed/Finished Beef”. “Grass Finished Beef” is being used by producers who are purchasing calves and finishing them on pasture for 120, or more, days. This tells the consumer nothing about the life of the beef prior to finishing. Even the “Grass Fed/Finished Beef” term allows for abuse of perceptions similar to “Grass Fed Beef”. Neither term guarantees that the beef only ate 100% grass/forage on pasture for its entire life. In reality, a producer can make no claims regarding diet, health, etc, beyond that their product is “Beef”, if they are not raising said beef from conception through slaughter. They simply don’t know.

Know your farmer

It is vitally important for the customer to ask questions when purchasing directly from local producers. Farmers and ranchers are human, prone to human foibles. They can say many things to distinguish themselves from their competition; their livelihood depends on making the sale. Some of those things can be misleading, or even outright lies. Be aware of marketing ploys. Always question.

In Part 2 of this series we discuss some things that the conscientious consumer can look for and questions they can ask to determine if a producer is being honest with them.