Canadian Wheat Board Branding Effort Two Years Later

Amarketing strategy to give Canadian wheat an identity like the iconic Juan Valdez for Colombian coffee growers is a long-term attempt to increase demand, but one grain expert says it will be a stiff challenge.

The Canadian Wheat Board, which has a government-granted monopoly on wheat and barley sales from Western Canada, the country’s major grain-growing region, launched a branding campaign more than two years ago.

Now the CWB logo and feel-good messages about western Canadian wheat quality are showing up domestically and abroad on bags of Canadian flour produced by Smucker Foods of Canada Co. under the Robin Hood Flour brand, and pasta made by Primo Foods. Late last year, Beijing Guchuan Food Co. Ltd. of China agreed to display a CWB logo and pro-Canadianwheat message on a shipment of its dumpling flour.

“This isn’t a smoke and mirrors exercise,” said David Burrows, the wheat board’s vice-president of public affairs and government relations. “We really are a superior-quality wheat product.”

Western Canadian wheat has high protein content and strong gluten, making it ideal for dough, according to the CWB.

The ultimate gauge of the branding strategy’s success is whether it creates a premium, Burrows said. The CWB isn’t claiming such results yet, but points to less tangible indicators such as improving per capita flour consumption and high consumer interest in its joint marketing campaigns with buyers.

The National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia in 1959 selected the advertising agency of Doyle Dane Bernbach to launch a campaign for its coffee. The agency then created the Valdez character.

Juan Valdez soon became the face of the country’s coffee industry, with especially strong recognition in its key advertising markets of North America and Spain, according to the federation.

“The lesson we’ve taken from (the Juan Valdez campaign) is you can take a commodity and infuse it with a brand personality and make it meaningful for your customers,” Burrows said.

The CWB has spent C$1.5 million so far.

It is unusual for an exporter to brand itself and its commodity, said Jill Hobbs, a professor of agriculture at University of Saskatchewan. And it’s especially tough to brand wheat, which takes many forms and undergoes many stages of processing, she said.

“That’s a harder sell with consumers,” Hobbs said.

The quality of wheat-based foods depends as much on how well it is processed as its origin, she said. Canadians may generally be receptive to a buy-Canadian campaign, but international consumers are less likely to care, she added.

But several wheat and barley importers saw an advantage to marketing their products’ Canadian origins well before the CWB campaign. Mister Donut, for example, ran a three-month promotion in 2003 in all of its 1,304 Japanese shops advertising its use of Canadian Red Spring wheat.

There has long been debate about whether western Canadian farmers should be required to sell their grain to the CWB. Canada’s Conservative government has said it plans to end the board’s monopoly, but lacks the number of votes in the House of Commons to do so.

Hobbs doubts that monopoly politics are a factor in the wheat board branding itself and its commodity. Even if the wheat board loses its monopoly, most expect it would remain a key exporter in an open-marketing system, she said.

The wheat board’s intent is not to promote itself, Burrows said. But a successful branding strategy might be a convincing argument for keeping the single sales desk, he added.

“It communicates at the end of the day that the single desk can deliver value for farmers, but only if we do it right,” Burrows said.

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