Reputation Management: A Critical Farm Input That’s Easy To Overlook

Equipment, seed, feed, fertilizer, crop protection, labor and fuel round out a farm’s top input investments. However, a recent roundtable I participated in with members of the Curious Plot Board of Advisors (BOA) underscored a critical input that’s often overlooked: reputation management.

Many farmers grasp that their reputation and very livelihood are perilously dependent on people whose curiosity about the story of their food far outweighs their knowledge about food production.

Whether building a brand or a farm’s good name, transparency can boost reputation and success. For example, in one study, 94% of consumers said they’re likely to trust and be loyal to meat and poultry brands that demonstrate “complete transparency.” A 2021 report by FSNS shared that the Niman Ranch brand appears on more than 16,500 restaurant menus “because of patrons’ interest in trust, transparency and belief that the company’s heritage is vested in its ethical and sustainable practices.”

One of the farmers on our BOA was quick to point out that doing transparency right takes time, money and finesse, especially in the age of social media.

“Transparency is good, as long as there’s also time for education,” said BOA chairperson and pork producer Danita Rodibaugh. “You have to take time to explain why when the general public doesn’t understand a practice.”

The passing of California’s Prop 12 following an aggressive social media campaign is a chilling reminder of the education chasm between farmers and consumers, and the inherent challenges of educating consumers about scientific topics in social media sound bites. Prop 12 makes it a civil and criminal offense to, within the state, sell pork from hogs born to sows raised in pens that do not comply with the state’s prescriptive animal housing standard.

So, what’s a farmer to do?

As Winston Churchill once said, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” That’s why a farmer’s job today is as much about raising good food as it is sharing the story of the food it produces.

When farmers or food brands don’t proactively tell their story or are unprepared to react swiftly to an incident or engage on a hot-button issue, the door is left open for others to tell the story for them.

“That’s how we’ve lost ballot initiatives and lost access to crop protection products,” said Rodibaugh.

But it’s not just about what you say or do on social media.

“It’s what you do on your farm and in your local communities – one person at a time – that changes an opinion,” she added.

Other BOA members added that it’s also about connecting on consumer benefits.

“Despite the anti-biotechnology movement, consumers have surprised us with their interest in gene-edited products when they themselves are the beneficiaries of the technology,” said Jeff Nawn, whose consulting firm, North Hill Group, helps companies navigate ag-biotech regulatory systems.

“Sanatech used CRISPR gene-editing technology to create a tomato high in GABA, a neurotransmitter that blocks impulses between nerve cells and the brain,” Nawn explained. “If you have low levels of GABA, you can experience higher levels of anxiety and chronic pain. But if you raise GABA, benefits may include improved mood, lower anxiety and better sleep.”

The company didn’t leave acceptance of its tomato to chance but rather proactively communicated the human health benefits to key audiences through a variety of channels.

“The social media element really blew up,” Nawn said. “Today, there’s enormous demand for the tomato. I’ve been involved in biotech for a long time, and this is the first time I saw something novel where, rather than reacting to the story, the company got out ahead of it.”

There is no silver bullet to building trust. It’s the aggregate of a farm or brand’s actions and an ongoing commitment to proactive communications and transparency.

It’s about meeting curious consumers where they are and trying to understand the trade-offs they are making in their minds, added Bill Boehm, former senior vice president with The Kroger Company and current member of the Neogen Corporation and GLK Foods boards.

“Consumers are making choices about their food, and there are many variables they are subconsciously dealing with,” Boehm said. “We need to have those conversations so we can understand what’s most important to them and what that equation looks like.”

I wholeheartedly agree that these conversations are incredibly important. I am proud of the role Curious Plot has played in helping bring people together to increase transparency in the food and ag industry. I expect we will continue to focus on reputation management with clients as a key input for increasing consumer trust.

Interested in learning more about our crisis and reputation management capabilities? Send us a message to talk with a team member.