imageI attended Snohomish County’s Focus on Farming Conference on Thursday. My favorite speaker of the day was Rod Brooks, whose speech was entitled “Today’s Marketing- It All Starts with a  Story!” This was one of those things on the agenda that makes me think, meh, I dunno if I’m interested in that. But it was the lunchtime speech, so I was a captive audience. It turned out his message, and his story, were both useful and entertaining.

So first of all, you might not know who Rod Brooks is, and neither did I. He’s the marketing guy behind the Pemco Insurance ad campaign, “We’re a lot like you, a little different.” If you’re not from around here, you won’t know much about this ad campaign, either. Even if you are from here, if you’re like me, you may have noticed some ad spots, but may not have been aware of the full story behind them. No worries, you are about to find out, as was I.

Pemco is a small, regional, mutual (member-owned) insurance company. A company that had started to tank.  They were competing with three major insurance giants. Giants which spend billions of dollars in advertising. It appeared Pemco was about to lose the game. They went back to the drawing board and asked, what are the ways to compete? They concluded there are only three ways: 1) Innovation 2) Advertising 3) Personal connection.

For insurance, there is limited opportunity to innovate new insurance product, so the only way innovation can help is in cost-cutting. They couldn’t see a lot of potential there.

In the advertising space, they were getting dramatically out-spent by the big guys. Besides, surveys show the broad majority of us don’t trust what advertisers claim anyway. Trying to advertise that you are cheaper or better is nearly futile. The only way advertising of that type works is sheer volume: just getting your brand in front of people over and over, to imprint it in their minds.  This gets back to money, which Pemco didn’t have.

So, they settled on personal connection as their only remaining marketing option. This is one area where they had a slight edge, being a regional company. They also knew from some market research that people in the Northwest are especially prideful in local culture. They pulled on this thread.

They decided that in advertising, we must avoid talking about what people don’t want to talk about. People don’t want to talk about insurance, because it’s a distressing topic that requires us to imagine potential disaster and spend money to prepare for it. But people do like stories. Stories are memorable. Stories are less likely to be resisted by a critical audience than marketing claims. So Pemco went with this: let’s just tell stories.

Mr. Brooks echoed a couple of lyrical slogans which sounded like mantras. The first one is this: show me that you know me, in ways that others don’t. That’s almost Shakespearean in its rhythm, no? Market research told them that people want companies to “get” them. And this was the birth of the Northwest Profiles series- humorous depictions of local culture. Stories, tied back to Pemco, and their slogan, “We’re a lot like you, a little different.” If you’re not familiar with these, you can peruse them here. I’ve snapshotted a few of my favorites in this post.

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It turns out, people didn’t just like these, they loved them. They thought they were hilarious. Even though, and probably because, they have nothing to do with insurance. Everyone who lives here knows a socks-and-sandals guy,  super-long-coffee-orderer, first-snowflake-freakout-lady, or ponytailed-software-geek. The ad campaign took off, becoming a cult phenom. (You can order your own free NW Profile trading cards on the website too.) Obviously, this connection with local culture hit a chord. Show me that you know me, in ways that others don’t.

Next, they spun stories out of clients whom they’ve helped. Heart-warming interviews from folks who had tragedy, then Pemco arrived, sometimes within minutes or hours, to take care of them and make life right again. Always focusing on the outcome. Skimming right past talking about what people don’t want to talk about (tragedy); but rather, telling stories about life which stick in people’s minds.

They also leveraged another marketing factoid: consumers do not trust advertisers. The recommendations they trust the most are from friends and neighbors. So, Pemco built a social media campaign around the NW Profiles, letting it spread like wildfire through Twitter, Facebook and their friends. The web sub-domain, where fans of the ad campaign can submit their own NW Profiles, encourages consumer engagement and sharing. And here is where they gave the big national companies a sledgehammer to the knees: people hate big corporate conglomerates, and they love local businesses. All of a sudden, we now have local people claiming this local company as their own, becoming possessive of it to the point of promoting it. Net Promoters. Now, your fan base is doing the advertising for you. The beauty of it is that it’s almost free! Going viral is the Internet advertising jackpot.

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Speaking of social media, we all know that the contrast to its highs of cheap exposure, there are the lows of complain-ey customers griping on Facebook. They tackled this gracefully. Their policy is this: negative reviews in social media make the positive ones believable. So, you want to leave them there and not be tempted to remove them. But here’s the simple three-step approach for “converting” social media complaints into a positive: 1) Thank the customer for letting you know 2) Apologize for letting them down 3) Ask “how can we help?” Then, of course, do everything feasible to give this person something to make things better, and demonstrate your follow-through, for all to see.

Pemco’s market research also found something that will resonate with a lot of us: most people hate phone “trees”- those numeric selection menus when you call customer service. Unfortunately they learned this just after they had invested a bunch of money trying to make their phone tree simpler to navigate. But, they bowed to market research anyway, scrapped the newly revamped phone tree altogether, and re-allocated marketing budget to old-fashioned phone-answering humans. This helped bolster their personal connection mantra.

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The other mantra I heard Brooks echo is to go where customers live, work, learn and play. Be where they are, so that you are embedded in the culture, and feel local. Pemco created the green “WALLY van” (WALLY = We’re A Lot Like You, get it? And of course it would be colored green, because we’re green, right?). They take it out to local events, and generally use it for community things. These aren’t just the “big” festivals they attend. You can tell from their schedule, they target the little stuff, the true community stuff. Their goal is to be ubiquitous in the neighborhood.

The moral of the story is that Pemco turned around. They flipped from declining sales to double-digit gains.They are seriously gouging their much-bigger competition, grabbing market share in a way nobody might have thought a little guy could.

imageAnd, in this Cinderella tale, another layered marketing campaign is spun. A story, that can be shared with other small, local businesses trying to compete against the big guy. And this story gets re-shared, as it’s being shared here. Brilliant, eh?

So what does this have to do with local farmers? Pemco doesn’t even sell farm insurance, after all. Well, it has everything to do with us, since we are in the same boat. We are micro-producers trying to compete in a sea of macro-producers, who can crush us when it comes to marketing, price, volume, distribution, and consistent supply. How do we compete? Here are some key points to remember:

  • There are three ways to compete: 1) Innovation 2) Advertising 3) Personal connection. Use any and all that are available to you. Though innovation may be lacking in the insurance industry, it’s something that’s widely available to small farm producers. Think heritage breeds, unique value-added products, grass-fed, humane-certified, non-GMO, permaculture, mixed-species, and all the other things big companies can’t do.
  • Leverage the fact that you are local and small, which most consumers prefer over large multi-national corporations. You may not have the advertising dollars the big guys do, but you have something they don’t: localness.
  • Go where people live, work, learn and play. Depending on what you’re marketing, if you can make it show up in neighborhoods, workplaces, schools and recreational venues, you’ll get maximum exposure.
  • Don’t talk about what people don’t want to hear. For us, those subjects may be slaughter, mud, winter housing, animal reproduction, culling, medications, things-that-die, etc. People generally want to hear the good stuff: happy animals, care for the environment, all-natural, sunshine-y green grass, a local family making a living. Sometimes consumers can handle the less glamorous stuff mixed in, if it’s an honest portrayal and appeals to their desire to understand farming and know their food. But, stick mostly to the good stories.
  • Make yourself available on social media, so that your promoters can “share” you with friends and neighbors. Encourage people to engage with you by asking open-ended questions on blog posts, and inviting users share photos on Facebook.
  • Convert negative reviews and complaints into positives by 1) Thanking the customer for letting you know 2) Apologizing for letting them down 3) Asking “how can I/we help?”
  • Be personal whenever possible. Answer the phone when you can, rather than letting it go to voice mail. Encourage farm visits and spend time answering questions of all sorts, even though they take time and do not immediately convert into a sale. These people will be your promoters in the long run.

And the biggest one, illustrate to your customers that you “get” them. Show me that you know me, in ways that others don’t.

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