How NZ Ag can stop getting beaten up

NZ Ag is always on the back foot. Despite the rhetoric from leaders in industry about how we need to tell our story better, we continue to be out-gunned by lobby groups like SAFE, PETA and Greenpeace. Whether it’s bobby calves, PKE, dirty dairying or most recently false free-range eggs, we’re always playing a defensive position that risks our social licence to operate.

NZ Ag could learn from those brands that have had the foresight and planning to build a strong equity. SouthWest airlines is a great example. When 9/11 occurred they were inundated with customers sending them cheques because they were worried about their viability. This was because their customer base had a fond affection for them and what they stood for: everyone has a democratic right to fly. When the botulism scare kicked in for Fonterra they found they had few friends. GSK’s Ribena got caught out after its false claims of Vitamin C was unearthed by two 14 year old school girls from Auckland. I doubt they’ve ever restored consumers’ trust. Same for Cadbury with all their mea culpas including palm oil. Their loss but certainly Whittakers gain who were 2016′s NZ’s Most Trusted Brand. If Whittakers should for whatever reason slip up, they’ll be able to fall on a good stock of love and trust from New Zealanders. You could also look at Lewis Road Creamery when they took on Fonterra regarding copy cat milk bottle designs and a supermarket shelf stoush. Owner Peter Cullinane attributed a lot of their partial victory over Fonterra to the strong following their brand had on social media.

A strong balance sheet for your brand, not just your financials, is vital for any company.

If NZ Ag doesn’t get its story in order, it will continue to stumble from one flogging to the next. Brand equity gets built up over time across all channels leaving the “trust bank account” either full of credits or empty from numerous debits. Every single interaction leaves a mental imprint so that’s why optimising each and every touchpoint is vital so that when you need to make a withdrawal, which people and companies will do from time to time, the credit is always there. Having that equity, just like the one have in your home or farm, is essential.

Like the law of physics, if you don’t communicate you leave a vacuum that others will fill. And without any control of message or conversation. Greenpeace’s latest Dairy Pollution TV ad that was defended by the ASA despite Dairy NZ’s insistence is a classic case of back foot mode. We are far too reactive.

One solution is for NZ Ag to build a central “Story Bank” that it can draw upon and use as a proactive, front-foot continuous content stream that leaves little air for knockers. It will need a central owner co-funded by industry with one editor supported by a collective of qualified contributors that represent all sectors of industry. Together, we’ll be stronger and gain more cut through vs doing it independently getting lost in the noise.

A few weeks back RNZ Mediawatch interviewed well respected journalist Phil Vine who recently moved across to Greenpeace. Whilst Mediawatch Colin Peacocke pressed his peer hard for a commitment to balanced reporting, it was obvious he will always work in the best interests of his employer as a lobbyist rather than a fourth estate journalist. Perhaps NZ Ag needs to muscle up in the same way employing the best and brightest journalists and brand builders because it’s a war within the consumer’s mind.

In addition to story telling, we need to be truth telling. I was reminded of this again at last week’s ASB Agri Investment Week Future Farms Conference by leading farmer Roger Dalrymple. Roger reinforced how we need to show – not just tell – our stories using data and evidence through the tools and technology all of us can now access through Precision Ag. The technology is there but the adoption of it isn’t. Yet. Yield mapping, variable rate irrigation, strip tillage and fertiliser proof of placement all powered by decent, reliable internet connection. It’s not enough to tell a nice story about farmers being good environmental stewards or yet another farmer testimonial using celebrity sportspeople. Proof is truth. We need those same story banks full of evidential, not just anecdotal.

The real irony here is that NZ Ag is a multi-billion dollar industry with vast resources yet it can’t get its act together to form a coherent proactive, front foot story. Like the best All Black test victories, the best form of defence is attack. We should attack a lead, not defend one but we can only do that when we get it right on farm.

Time for more front foot. Time for more proactive, constructive engagement with lobby groups. And time for more farmers like Richard Dalrymple.

If we continue to leave a vacuum for others to fill we only have ourselves to blame.