Like many B2B organizations, agricultural biotech company Monsanto focused primarily on its own client base rather than the end users, and hadn't really considered social media a priority for the company.
Unlike most B2B organizations, Monsanto found itself facing a virtual army of people determined to bring the company down, and it needed a way to invite people in so they could discover the facts for themselves.
Fortunately for Monsanto, online engagement director Janice Person had been making inroads in the online farming community for years, blogging on her own site, JanicePerson.com, and connecting with farmers through her Twitter account, @JPLovesCotton. With her connections in the farming community, Monsanto was able to organize a series of community outreach events on farms.
Janice attended blogger conferences, then started inviting bloggers and other influencers to local farms to meet farmers in their own communities. What better way to combat misinformation than to provide education?
I invited Janice to Marketing Smarts to discuss brand management and how a B2B enterprise or organization can overcome negative public perception by cultivating a relationship with the consumers their clients serve.
Here are just a few highlights from our conversation:
Maintaining communication with the community can prevent jarring changes that hurt brand sentiment (05:20): "Over the last few years, we've found more and more Americans really care about how their food is grown and they have more questions about it. And at the same time, that beautiful family farm maybe has become a beautiful family farm that's bigger. Companies like Monsanto are part of that and then family farmers are part of that.
"A lot of people didn't see these changes going on in agriculture. It'd be kind of like in the tech industry all this computer stuff was happening without us getting home computers and then suddenly, overnight, we went from never having computers in our lives to having an iPhone. Wow, that would be a huge change! It's been a process for those of us in agriculture. We didn't see it as a revolutionary change, but from the outside it certainly looks like revolutionary change.
"It's been a gap of information and sharing. The company, Monsanto, was really focused on farmers that buy our seed, and the people who buy our stock, or the people who maybe are looking at the science and trying to determine what the science looks like and what can science tells you and we were kind of forgetting everybody else: people who just want to know about food."
Employees can humanize your company online (which makes it harder for others to demonize your brand) (08:50): "A lot of our employees have wanted to get online and share their personal stories, and social media really allows that to happen in a unique way. In the past, it used to be 'okay, companies do press releases,' and now you have employees who also say 'well, here's what I think about that...' Social media early on really provided a lot of obstacles for us, because we hadn't engaged in this consumer conversation. A lot of people were hearing about us, maybe seeing us portrayed in different things. They never got to meet us.
"Most people don't have a farmer in the family. If I were to get sick and I were concerned about the doctor who was treating me, I have a nurse in my family I could go to and ask questions. Well, the same thing happened in agriculture, but most of us don't have a farmer in the family to ask questions of, and so it kind of spirals..."
"It's so easy to criticize a logo or a building. But when people start knowing the people behind it, the people who are committed to this kind of work, when they get to know you, they realize you know hundreds and hundreds of farmers... which is not necessarily the perception people have of Monsanto... It goes a long way to have employees who want to speak up, and there's lots of them."
Don't tell people your side of the story, let them discover it for themselves (11:00): "We have some farmers down in Florida who grow a certain kind of small bell peppers that are just so awesomely tasty and sweet, but most people have never thought about it when they go to the grocery store... [So we] open up and ask consumers [and] food bloggers 'would you like to come to a farm and see how peppers are grown..."
"People...are like 'oh my God, that sounds so exciting.' Getting to talk to somebody who's growing them and getting to pick yours to take them home—that's an amazing experience that people are craving in today's world. And Monsanto has a unique spot where those farmers trust us. They've done business with us for years and we can help create those experiences for people. It's been really exciting not only only the employee side, but on the company being able to open up some of these doors, as well."
Janice and I talked about much more, so be sure to listen to the entire show, which you can do above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode!
Music credit: Noam Weinstein.