Our image is ours – but we need to own it

One of the challenges for the farming community is that we have such a good story to tell, but don’t always spread that message widely enough to consumers in urban areas. Former USDA secretary, Ann Veneman, made that point when I was fortunate enough to meet her a decade ago.

Ten years on, it’s a point I still think about a lot. Increasingly, I think we are now telling our good story to others and not just to each other.

It’s marvellous that we, as farmers, are now more revered than we are reviled. But are we doing enough to protect our image?

Is it right that our brand, ie “the farmer”, is manipulated and used in corporate advertising campaigns?

In recent years a number of products have been promoted to be as wholesome, as healthy and as British as British farmers. But to do this, all too often the farmer they show is a stereotype or a child-friendly version: more Tractor Ted than Peter Kendall.

I cannot decide if using a caricature is exploitation – but I am certainly uncomfortable with being used as a marketing hook for a host reasons.

Firstly, the wholesome healthy idyll is often represented by a farmer circa 1960. I hardly need to describe him; he drives an old Massey 135 tractor, no cab, dog on mudguard, flat cap, with straw in mouth. Wholesome and hard-working he may be, but a dynamic depiction of 21st century farming it is not. Given a choice, is this the way farming would wish to be promoted? While nostalgia can be very good for the soul, it will do little to encourage young people to work within farming and food supply.

As Yeo Valley’s successful rapping campaign of 2010 showed, the image of agriculture doesn’t have to be from a bygone era to work.

Secondly, as farmers we should take ownership of our intellectual property. If we are such a desirable marketing tool then we should be making better use of it to promote ourselves. In Canada, Australia and New Zealand, farming promotes from within – on TV, radio and in the print media.

But the most interesting thing of all about such advertising campaigns is the intention of corporate companies to piggyback on farming’s commitment to protecting and enhancing the countryside and the wider environment.

A crude analogy it may be, but having an attractive boyfriend or girlfriend can be good for self-esteem. But wanting to have an attractive partner to raise ones social acceptability would be abhorrent.

Displaying a responsibility to a sustainable environment is vital to the success of any brand. No longer is it just about the product. The corporate world needs to communicate to their consumers that they are responding to their responsibilities.

Whether or not they are, as far as some companies are concerned, is neither here nor there. Brands want to be perceived as proactively addressing the issues for the betterment of the planet. This, in marketing speak is referred to as “greenwashing”.

So brands can benefit by association. Show a link to farmers and farming and the environmental box is ticked. Such greenwashing takes all the benefit but little of the responsibility.

All agree that farmers have a vital role to play in the future survival of the planet.

As farmers, we should have a co-ordinated marketing campaign that defines our responsibilities, the way we produce food and look after the environment. By doing nothing, we leave too much to chance and allow others to portray farmers in whichever way they chose.

Ian Pigott farms 700ha in Hertfordshire. The farm is a LEAF demonstration unit, with 130ha of organic arable. Ian is also the founder of Open Farm Sunday.

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