Wheat Pool raising profile of agriculture with urbanites

Two years ago, executives in the marketing department at the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool had a gut feeling the urban population of Saskatchewan did not feel at all tied to agriculture, the province's largest industry.They took their suspicion to Graham Barker, president...

Two years ago, executives in the marketing department at the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool had a gut feeling the urban population of Saskatchewan did not feel at all tied to agriculture, the province’s largest industry.

They took their suspicion to Graham Barker, president of Regina-based advertising and public relations firm Phoenix Group, whose research confirmed it.

Related to agriculture

Only 13% of people in urban Saskatchewan who were questioned felt that their jobs or livelihoods had anything to do with agriculture.

The Wheat Pool wanted to change this perception and the Phoenix Group set out on a five-year plan to elevate support for agriculture in the urban areas of the province.

Now, entering the third year of the campaign, the proportion of the urban population who support the idea that agriculture is a deciding factor in the prosperity of the province, and, therefore, directly linked to them, has jumped from 13% to 70%.

When Phoenix staff began to put the campaign together, they found there was no shortage of information on which to base their campaign, but they also found people were not responding to statistics.

The media were constantly quoting numbers and politicians used statistics in every election to cater to the rural/ urban split.

According to Barker, even if members of the target audience soaked up all the statistics, they would not necessarily change their minds.

So Phoenix decided to go with an advocacy-based, emotional campaign. The agency ran five flights of tv advertising and, with the exception of its latest commercial, did not deal with statistics at all.

Instead, the spots concentrated on natural images and conveyed what Barker describes as a ‘soft and warm’ feeling.

One spot showed a succession of images of young children, while the voiceover talked about their future and tied it in with farming.

So far, the strategy has paid off.

Now, after two years and a major attitude shift, people are interested and supportive enough to ask ‘What can be done?’ and ‘What can we do?’ says Barker, and the campaign can become more information-based.

In addition to its image campaign, the Wheat Pool also developed a children’s program – The Adventurers Club.

Long run

The pool recognized its success with adults, but was concerned about attitudes in the long run.

Wheat Pool executives were worried that not enough was being done to educate children about agriculture and its importance to the province.

The Phoenix Group brought in some outside help, notably Toronto-based consultant Goody Gerner, who specializes in marketing to children, and together they designed a program to target 10- and 11-year-olds.

They invented characters such as the hero, King Wheat, and villains (based on common crop diseases) and created an activity book around them.

Membership to The Adventurers Club was marketed through tv and point-of-purchase displays at community credit unions.

The goal for the year was 5,000 members.

However, at this point, more than 18,000 children have applied for membership and the Phoenix group has not been able to keep up with the demand for membership kits.

Operating solely in Saskatchewan, the Phoenix Group devotes a lot of time to researching the people of the province.

According to Barker, there are definable differences that set the Saskatchewan market apart even from the other prairie provinces.

He feels that, often, national companies wanting to sell across the country will lump Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba together.

‘That’s inaccurate,’ Barker says.

‘It would limit the success of a product,’ he says. ‘There are definable differences in terms of how we look at ourselves and others.’

These are the children of parents who went through the ‘Dirty Thirties,’ Barker says. The attitudes are a little hardened, somewhat cynical.

He also speaks of a strong co-operative spirit.

Barker points to SaskTel, the Saskatchewan telephone company, as an organization sensitive to the province.

Because SaskTel is part of the Stentor network of telephone companies, it can use a number of tv commercials that are produced mainly in Toronto and made available to members of Stentor across the country.

While it is a great deal for SaskTel – the cost of buying the commercial is a fraction of what it would be to produce one for SaskTel alone – occasionally a spot comes through that just will not sit right in Saskatchewan.

Barker remembers one which ‘oozed of successÉ. Fast shiny cars, Hugo Boss suits. The vast majority of people [in Saskatchewan] view it like `We don’t live like that.’ It’s not in sync.’

And, says Barker, test groups of businesspeople (the target audience) ‘really didn’t like it.’