Sustainability Starts with a Marketing Plan

From Growing Produce 3-8-2012
Rick VanVranken gives tips on developing a marketing program that works for your growing operation.

“Your marketing plan is the map that will identify your potential customers and what products you might sell them.”

In late November 2011, American Vegetable Grower asked readers of their E-newsletter to describe their marketing plan. Only 13% to 15% responded that they were satisfied that they had a strong marketing plan. A third of respondents said, “Looking to improve” while more than 20% indicated their marketing plans were “non-existent.”

A slightly different question ran in one of AVG’s sister publications: How would you describe your company’s marketing strategy? Still, only 15% answered “Good” and another 30% said, “Average” leaving a majority (55%) rating their marketing strategies as “Poor.”

Hmmm…looks like we’ve got some work to do! Having no plan is still a plan, but that’s scary because you are settling to be a price taker, not a price maker. That can be the difference between success or failure, or in today’s terms — sustainability and unsustainability.

Marketing Plan Should Come First

You can find business and market planning guides and templates of all sorts online, through your state Extension systems, and likely from your farm lenders. (USDA’s Risk Management Agency has a good set of useful business and market planning tools available at

Like most planning tools available though, you’ll find the marketing plan (and separate market analysis) included as a subcategory along with mission statements, goals/objectives, and financial statements within the overall business plan.

I contend that the marketing plan should be step Number 1. It’s hard to fathom how a business plan mission statement and objectives or goals can be written before identifying who might buy what product you can grow. Sure, you can develop a list of goals that include something like “sustainably producing a safe, quality crop with minimal impact using Good Agricultural Practices and meeting Third Party Audit standards.”

However, if you’re planning to sell truckloads of bulk sweet corn to a processor, your objectives and methods of producing that safe product, even your mission statement, will be different than if you plan to sell by the dozen off the back of your pick-up truck at the local community farmers’ market, or even fresh to the wholesale market. Start with the marketing plan and the answers to the rest of the business plan will already be identified.

Ironically, I am writing this the week after the Super Bowl. Getting almost as much hype and analysis as the game itself are all the advertisements that have become part of the annual show. Unfortunately, most people start discussing advertising and promotion when asked about their marketing plans, but these are only the strategies or tools available to implement a plan.

Plan, Options, Strategies

Your marketing plan is the map that will identify your potential customers and what products you might sell them. Once that is known, they will determine how to grow, at what stage to harvest, how to package, as well as where and when you’ll make the sales transaction.

The how, when, and where then become your marketing options. Will you wholesale directly to chains, through brokers/buyer-shippers, at an auction, or will you be selling to a processor? Alternatively, have you identified individual consumers as your buyers that you would like to reach directly through a retail outlet? Lots more options there too — roadside stand, community farmers’ markets, CSAs, home delivery, Internet, and mail order.

And yes, now I’m getting to advertising, one of the marketing strategies you will use to communicate with those customers you identified in your marketing plan. Traditional media advertising – print, radio, TV — certainly are still important tools, though, again depending who you’ve identified as your potential customers, the cost-benefit must be carefully analyzed before purchasing.

Marketing strategies may be as simple as personal phone calls to keep buyers aware of crop status, or newsletters, blogging, or a full website. Merchandising tools that portray your image like signs, packaging, displays, etc., or in the wholesale market your brand and implementation of GAPs, passing third-party audits or your scores on a sustainability matrix, are all marketing strategies that can be used to support your marketing plan.

As they say, “We don’t plan to fail; we fail to plan.” Don’t let a “nonexistent” marketing plan guide your business.

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