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Editorial: The science of marketing

There’s an old truism from the world of marketing that goes, “the customer is always right.”

Too often these days it’s used by bad customers to justify their even worse behaviour. They seem to feel it excuses all sort of boorishness, from yelling at the wait staff to making insulting low-ball offers.

But its original meaning was far different and much more informative to anyone who makes their living selling a product to another party.

An older and very successful salesman once explained it to me this way: “It means when a customer shows up at a car dealer to buy a bright-orange and lime-green car, it’s your job to sell them the car they want, not to try to convince them the colours they’ve picked are terrible.”

If you don’t do what you can to provide them with the product they want, the helpful folks at the next dealership will be more than happy to do it, he added.

It’s a lesson a lot of businesses appear to be in the process of relearning as consumers flex their new-found muscles and a plethora of new specialty and online retailers line up to fulfil their needs. When Amazon and other platforms will ship almost anything to any door, it’s tough to be a brick-and-mortar retailer with a shop full of stock that’s not quite right.

It’s also a reality the food and agriculture industry needs to embrace, for the opportunities it presents as much as for any potential pitfalls.

The Canadian pork industry has recently been showing considerable nimbleness understanding its customers and giving them what they want.

In the first quarter of 2017, the exporters accomplished something that’s only happened a handful of times before: they sold more pork to China than the U.S. did. That growth has been spurred by the near-complete removal of the growth promoter ractopamine from the Canadian supply chain. It’s banned in China and removing it has thrown the doors wide open to the largest hog market in the world, with impressive results.

There will surely be ups and downs in this new relationship, as illustrated by a troubling finding of some traces of the product in one shipment. But overall, if the industry continues down this road, things look very promising. So promising that the U.S. industry is showing interest in following suit.

Pork-producing giants such as Smithfield Foods are now promising their own ractopamine-free options in a bid to regain this market share. By moving first and fastest, however, Canada has nicely positioned itself as a preferred supplier.

What’s particularly interesting about this market development is the way the industry has responded, despite the fact the preponderance of scientific evidence supports its safety, when properly administered to growing hogs.

Faced with stiff opposition to it from a key market, and the threat such opposition may spread, the industry responded by giving its customers what they wanted, not insisting that they take what was being produced because it was really better for them.

It shows an understanding of how true marketing works, as opposed to the price hedging that agriculture calls “marketing.” It’s a lesson other sectors should take to heart.

Take the example of the A&W chain, the restaurants that many Canadian farmers now love to hate. With their ingredients-first marketing strategy, in which they specify animal care standards, hormone-free status and even livestock dietary restrictions, they’ve been widely painted as farmer unfriendly. The thing is, they still buy from farmers.

It’s working for them. A little-known fact is that the Canadian A&W operations are entirely independent of other incarnations of the restaurant brand globally, and have been since 1972. They’re also the brand’s lone success story in recent times.

In the U.S. there’s a scant 300 restaurants from coast to coast and globally there’s another 300 or so. Compare that to McDonald’s, that operates just under 37,000 restaurants worldwide.

Here in the much smaller Canadian market, there are 850 A&Ws, and the chain boasts of being the fastest-growing burger chain in the nation. Back in the U.S. a consortium of franchisees who recently purchased the brand are bravely talking up the “comeback trail.”

The industry might not like what A&W represents or the heightened scrutiny it will mean. Producers chafe under the perception the burger chain is implying mainstream production practices are inhumane or unsafe.

But A&W has clearly struck a chord with consumers and the chain is giving its customers what they want, rather than insisting they should have a different kind of burger.

By deciding the customer is right, it has found a recipe for success.

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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