Sunday, February 10, 2019

Building Up or Tearing Down: Differing Approaches to Direct Marketing

When we started in the sheep business, we marketed most of our lambs directly as meat - at farmers markets, to restaurants, or as freezer lambs. While our marketing channels have evolved (today, most of our lambs are sold as feeders to other producers, or directly to our processor), our marketing philosophy has remained constant. Our approach has always been to tell our customers what we do and why we do it - transparency is the cornerstone of our marketing message. I have found, however, that other producers sometimes try to differentiate their products by telling their customers that everything else is bad. They tear down the competition, in other words, rather than telling the positive story about their own products.

Part of our message has always been our focus on sustainability. We try to improve the ecological resources that we manage (by intensively managing our grazing, by coexisting with the wildlife in our environment, by paying attention to the health of our soils). The second pillar of sustainability, at least for me, is the health of our community. We try to give back - by teaching our neighbors about sheep production, by utilizing resources that might otherwise be wasted (for example, we're currently experimenting with feeding bakery waste that would otherwise go into the landfill). The foundation of our sustainability, however, is our economic viability. If we can't sustain our business financially, the other benefits of our management disappear.

Obviously, our approach is very specific to our resources, our community, and our family's situation. The system that works for us may not work for someone else; similarly, somebody else's approach may not fit for us. While I have always learned from how other shepherds manage their sheep and their resources - and while I've always been open about sharing our system - I've tried always to respect the decisions that other shepherds make based on their own circumstances.

One of the ways that we have marketed our products - whether it is meat or live lambs (or wool, for that matter) - is via social media. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have been outstanding tools for sharing our story. For the most part, we've had positive experiences with these platforms. Occasionally, however, another producer will decide to criticize our system rather than talk about how and why they do things differently. I find these virtual lectures about what I'm doing wrong to be terribly frustrating.

I realize that the line between these marketing approaches is not well-defined. Sometimes differentiating one system from another can come across as overly critical - even when it's not meant to be. That said, I've always learned more from other producers who ask insightful questions about my situation than those who offer hard-and-fast rules regardless of the situation. And I've always appreciated producers who talk about why they do what they do rather than criticize their fellow producers.

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