Agri-retailers who work hard to use sustainable practices can also benefit from communicating these to their customers

What’s good for the environment can also be great for your business. The key to seeing more of a return on your company’s sustainable practices may be to incorporate this message into your marketing strategy.

“By marketing sustainable practices, it lets agri-retailers and growers be recognized in the sustainable food chain,” explains Patty Smith, director of business development and human resources at Blair’s Family of Companies, an agri-retailer based in central Saskatchewan.

A Competitive Advantage

Recently, due in large part to consumer demand, food companies such as Kellogg’sUnilever and Smithfield Foods Inc., are starting to partner with environmental stewardship platforms in an effort to put an ag sustainability stamp on more of their products.

Smith points to Unilever as an example – they recognize the SUSTAIN® platform, a land stewardship platform that combines technologies, practices and products that improve nutrient efficiency and soil health.

Through this program and their own sustainability initiatives, Unilever plans to source 100 per cent of the canola used in the production of Hellmann’s mayonnaise from acres that meet their sustainably produced standards.

“Marketing sustainable practices and pairing with companies like Unilever are helping to make sure our farmers are being recognized for the sustainable practices they’re already doing,” says Smith, whose company is an authorized SUSTAIN agri-retailer.

Standing Out in the Crowd

David Lazarenko, president of agency services at Think Shift, a Winnipeg-based brand and digital agency, says for the large number of agri-retailers starting to operate sustainably, he still doesn’t see many businesses specifically marketing these practices.

“We come across it,” says Lazarenko “It’s a part of their brand promise that they believe in the notion of sustainability, but businesses often don’t market it separately,” he explains.

This could present an opportunity for businesses looking to promote their sustainability message. In a market as yet unsaturated by similar ideas, communicating about these practices may help agri-retailers reach interested customers easily and directly.

As Blair’s Family of Companies promotes the SUSTAIN platform in Western Canada, Smith says they plan to ramp up the role that marketing plays in their sustainable practices. The company is in the process of making a promotional video with SUSTAIN growers to demonstrate the importance of land and water stewardship to other Blair’s customers – and most importantly, consumers.

“We’ve been asking our customers who have signed up for SUSTAIN why it’s important for their farm, and getting their opinions on sustainable agriculture,” she says. “Once we’re done, we will air that video on our website and social media, and share it with other industry partners as well,” says Smith.

Building Awareness

Reagan Wildeman, marketing manager for SUSTAIN in North America, says that helping companies communicate about their responsible practices is part of their mandate.

SUSTAIN provides two-day training workshops to accredited agri-retailers, where they develop marketing and business plans, compose social media strategies and learn how to help farmers share their stories with consumers.

“We expect agri-retailers to contribute significant marketing dollars to help explain their role within the platform,” she says.

“You need to build awareness – it’s easy for really important issues to get lost in the shuffle of day-to-day retail and agriculture. It’s important to realize how powerful and how important marketing efforts are,” explains Wildeman.

The strategy of how to communicate sustainable practices differs for each company. Parkland Fertilizers, one of three authorized SUSTAIN agri-retailers in Canada, frequently posts photos and information about the platform on its Facebook page, tweets using hashtags during SUSTAIN conferences, and proudly sports a SUSTAIN banner on its website, entry gate and fertilizer terminal.

G-Mac’s AgTeam, located in west central Saskatchewan, takes a more physical approach to its marketing. Besides introducing its SUSTAIN participation in a weekly newsletter, the staff wears matching SUSTAIN jerseys every Thursday to promote the land stewardship program to customers. The company says the promotion has been a success – they’ve experienced more and more customers asking about the initiative, and each has been happy to learn that they’re participating in sustainable business.

Internal Interest

There are also internal benefits to be found in promoting responsible practices. When it comes to recruiting young employees, sustainability can be a significant draw for millennials.

A 2015 study by Nielsen found that 72 per cent of millennials are more drawn to products and services that come from companies who are committed to positive environmental impact. Through accreditations like SUSTAIN and Fertilizer Canada’s 4R Nutrient Stewardship program, agri-retailers can find an advantage when it comes to attracting new talent.

“Businesses can market that as, ‘Come work for us, you can have a great career in agriculture and help with sustainable practices,’” explains Wildeman. “The millennials who participated in SUSTAIN programs talked passionately about how it gives their career in agronomy meaning and purpose beyond selling crop inputs.”

Protecting Social License

Promoting their sustainable practices can also help agri-retailers get in front of any legislation that could regulate or change the agriculture industry. Climate change is a buzzword in many political platforms, and marketing can be a proactive tactic to help protect agriculture’s social license to operate.

“It allows us to put the land and water stewardship platforms in front of our producers at the ground floor, before there is legislation that impacts their freedom to operate,” says Smith. 

“It’s a great opportunity for agri-retailers to demonstrate value to their customers in making sure they are ahead of these changes that will impact how they grow crops.”

Forward-Looking Messaging

As for the future of marketing sustainable agriculture, Think Shift’s Lazarenko predicts we’ll see it being promoted more and more. “Sustainability will be an important part of an agri-retailer’s brand promise,” he says. “Businesses won’t stand out as being special for having it, but will stand out as negative if they don’t.”

This means that agri-retailers who don’t put a focus on sustainable practices may soon be left behind as the demand for environmentally responsible products increases. If two businesses offer similar products, services and pricing, Lazarenko says the one who practices and promotes sustainability will hold a competitive advantage.

“We like to buy products and do business with organizations that we like and feel good about,” he explains. “Sustainability adds to the brand credit.”

There is a place for a sustainability message in every company’s marketing strategy, as there are customers and potential employees looking for it. Agri-retailers who make an effort to market their sustainable practices will soon be able to measure the value of their investment in environmental responsibility. 

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