Special report: Marketing in Western Canada: Farmers speak up to CN

Comments of 39 farmers turned into almost instant radio spotsWhen your most important customer's grumbling starts to become persistent, then it's time to take stock - and your own satellite transmitter.That's exactly what cn did when Prairie farmers expressed their displeasure...

Comments of 39 farmers turned into almost instant radio spots

When your most important customer’s grumbling starts to become persistent, then it’s time to take stock – and your own satellite transmitter.

That’s exactly what cn did when Prairie farmers expressed their displeasure with the way the railway was transporting their grain to silos across the continent.

Last year, cn and its Calgary-based agency, Parallel Strategies, visited communities across Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta to hear straight from the horse’s mouth what the farmers’ complaints were.

Then, in the space of a couple of hours, they turned the comments of 39 farmers into almost instant radio spots – that’s where the satellite transmitter comes in.

Jim Feeny, cn’s manager of public affairs, says grain represents 20% of the railway’s haulage and farmers are its largest customer.

Feeny says it is nothing new for cn to go out and listen to farmers’ concerns – the Crown corporation has been doing it for a dozen years in public meetings – but adds perhaps cn has been guilty of telling farmers what they want instead of asking what they want.

He says the nature of prairie farming has changed, and the nature of cn’s service to farmers has to reflect that.

Trudy White-Matthews, account director at Parallel Strategies, says there had already been public meetings between farmers and cn, but what the railway wanted to do was get detailed points of view from grain farmers in such whistlestops as Biggar, Sask., Wainwright, Alta., Miami, Man., and larger places such as North Battleford, Sask.

And, just as importantly, to show the farmers it was listening.

So, in an exercise that was as much pr as advertising, White-Matthews, Feeny and a technical crew jumped in an rv and racked up 8,500 kilometres between Aug. 2 and 26 last year driving from town to town.

White-Matthews says cn obtained the names of the farmers from various farm organizations to avoid any hint of a stage-managed event.

As she says, when the rv rolled up to each farm, she and Feeny had no idea what the farmers were going to say.

‘What we had anticipated when we went out was that we would hear a lot of very specific local issues; that we don’t like this, or this train didn’t show up on time,’ White-Matthews says.

‘But as it turns out, [the farmers] were all very globally-minded and that really impressed us to a great degree that the farmers are stepping back and saying, `Lookit, we’re looking at the whole and we realize that everybody has to make money on this system,’ ‘ she says.

After an audio and video interview with a farmer – some lasted 10 minutes others lasted 45 – White-Matthews and Feeny selected the point they wanted to use from a farmer’s comments, advised him they were going to use it in a commercial, then went to the rv to edit it, letting the farmer hear the 60-second spot before it was broadcast.

White-Matthews says the crew had an hour or less to edit the farmer’s comments before it was transmitted to Broadcast News in Toronto.

‘They would turn around and immediately downlink to 20 radio stations in the Prairies and these radio stations would play these spots that we’d created in the morning on the noon news, and we’d do it all again in the afternoon, and then we would downlink and they would play them again – a new spot – at 5 p.m.’

White-Matthews says the radio spots were almost all farmer comments, noting just 10 seconds of each spot were used to set up the commercials.

White-Matthews, who works on the cn account with a public relations specialist, admits that the railway venture is not strictly advertising, but says cn is an integrated company and the message it sought to convey with the farmers’ comments reflect this.

‘It’s very grey where advertising starts and our public relations ends,’ she says.

‘Everything works together to make it happen. So, is it a true 100% advertising account? Overall, the whole thing? No, it’s not.’

Nor was it costly.

Feeny calls cn’s audio-visual trip across the Prairies ‘not really expensive,’ saying the railway spent more on production than it did buying air time.

As well as the radio spots, White-Matthews, Feeny and crew shot 26 hours of video footage in black and white.

She says the footage was shot at the same time as the farmers were making their audiotaped comments and has a ‘raw, edgy’ feel to it.

In turn, White-Matthews says, the footage has been edited into 19 tv spots, a mixture of 30s and 60s, that are broadcast on the Prairie Farm Report, a ctv program seen in Western Canada on that network and on some cbc stations.

cn, which sponsors a portion of the 30-minute Prairie Farm Report, began broadcasting the tv spots shot last August on the program in October, and has them slated to run until September this year.

White-Matthews says the set-up time for the tv spots is even less than for the radio commercials – just three seconds.

She calls the Crown corporation’s decision to use tv in this manner ‘quite brave.’

She says the immediacy of the radio spots worked in their favor, but, because they were so topical they cannot be used again.

However, the 19 tv spots can be, and will be rotated until they, too, are taken off the air.

Feeny says cn is now working with Parallel to figure out just what the railway is going to do next summer.

In any event, the information gathered from all 39 farmers interviewed went to cn’s grain operations headquarters in Montreal for analysis.