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Face-to-Farm Marketing
Using a live feed, the Organic Valley brand puts attendees face to face with remote, rural farmers. Going head to head with massive competitors' activations, the tactic boosts leads by more than 215 percent. By Linda Armstrong
Traffic Builder
Exhibitor: Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools (dba Organic Valley) Creative/Production: Astound Group Inc., Las Vegas, 702-462-9718, www.astoundgroup.com
Production: Stamm Media, Milwaukee, 414-263-4200, www.stammmedia.com
Show: Natural Products Expo West, 2019
Promotional Budget: $100,000 – $199,000
• Generate 50 percent more leads than at the previous year's show.
• Cultivate awareness among social-media influencers and trigger a trickle-down effect to grow consumer awareness.
• Woo traditional media outlets and increase impressions by 25 percent compared to 2018.
• Grew leads by more than 215 percent.
• Scored 333,000 social-media impressions and reached more than 230,000 unique individuals via influencers' posts and tweets.
• Secured upwards of 34.5 million impressions by way of traditional media outlets, an uptick of more than 37 percent.
Smart exhibit marketers are wise to the value of face-to-face interactions. After all, in addition to producing various other deliverables, such encounters include nonverbal cues that help attendees build empathy, trust, and, ultimately, relationships. However, the folks behind the Organic Valley brand, whose products include organic dairy, meats, and produce, are a couple of clicks up the smart-marketers chart. In fact, you might say these marketing mavens really know how to milk the power of face to face.

At the 2019 Natural Products Expo West show (NPE West), Organic Valley not only fostered quality exchanges between attendees and staff but also devised a way for visitors to have real-time conversations with the heart and soul of the organization, i.e., its farmers. But to fully comprehend the stimulus behind the strategy, one must first understand a bit more about the company's humble beginnings.

Organic Valley took root when a tiny group of farmers in the Coulee region near La Crosse, WI, banded together for the common good. During the '80s, small family farms in the United States were under intense financial pressure to either get big or get out. It was increasingly difficult to make a living going up against immense industrial farming operations, which typically employ copious chemicals. To carry on farming without selling out to the big guys or the chemical-centric mindset, seven Coulee-region farmers hatched a plan so crazy they figured it just might work. In effect, they agreed to thumb their noses at industrial farming methods, convert to wholly organic homesteads, and establish their own cooperative to promote their produce. Hence, in 1988, the Coulee Region Organic Produce Pool was born.

Since then, the organization's organic product mix has evolved, migrating from mainly produce to mostly dairy products such as milk, butter, cheese, and yogurt. Its legal moniker has morphed as well, becoming Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools (dba Organic Valley).

Despite the forward progress, the co-op has remained true to its family-farm roots. It's now one of the country's only independent organic companies, as countless competitors, including Annie's Homegrown, Cascadian Farm, and Muir Glen, have been consumed by behemoth brands such as Kraft, General Mills, and Nestlé.

Due to its determination to elevate principles over profits, Organic Valley has generated both warm fuzzies and cold, hard cash. It now represents nearly 2,000 farmers in 34 states, ranks as one of the world's largest organic consumer brands, and harvests more than $1.1 billion in annual sales.

Gallons of Goals
As savvy marketers might suspect, trade shows have played an integral role in Organic Valley's success. The organization participates in more than 100 events every year, a figure that has grown dramatically since it began exporting products to the Middle East and Asia. But just as the co-op has advanced during the last 30 years, so too have its exhibit-marketing objectives for NPE West, the organization's promotional bread and butter and where it spends half of its annual exhibiting budget. While its target audience at NPE West has always included corporate buyers from retail brands such as Sprouts, Whole Foods, and more, its members' makeup and needs have recently changed as a result of two key factors.

First, given consumer demands, retailers such as Walmart, Albertsons, et al. have entered the organic-product marketplace en masse. "Mainstream retailers are adding more organic products to their stores," says Cate Hollowitsch, Organic Valley's director of engagement marketing. "We're now dealing with a diverse mix of buyers. Some people already know us, have sampled our products, and have developed relationships with our team. But a whole new group of prospects is unfamiliar with us."

Second, the needs of existing buyers to whom salespeople would normally pitch new products have changed, making in-booth product sampling not as relevant as it once was. "We've long believed that if people taste our food, we can convert them into customers," says Stephanie Knutson, senior engagement marketing coordinator at Organic Valley. "That's still true today, but the schedules by which retailers switch out their product offerings no longer align with the timing of the trade show season."

In years past, the organization promoted new products at shows via in-booth sampling. But now, to better parallel retail purchasing schedules with new-product rollouts, salespeople distribute samples long before industry events. "Come show time, many buyers have already tried our latest advances," Knutson says.

Given these challenges, Organic Valley's marketing tag team of Knutson and Hollowitsch had a couple of core goals for NPE West. To target existing customers and those already familiar with its products, Organic Valley needed to differentiate itself. "In lieu of sampling, we planned to illustrate how we're better than the competition and what's special about us," Knutson says. "We would tell our story, remind customers of our values, and deepen relationships by luring these people into the booth for high-quality engagements."

Meanwhile, reaching reps from those mainstream retailers, most of whom were unfamiliar with Organic Valley, would require a quantity-based approach. "Touching a large number of these buyers was critical given the nature of the retailers," Hollowitsch says. "With some convenience-store chains, for example, every store is a franchise, and the owner selects the product combinations. That means we're not trying to reach one corporate buyer. Rather, we're targeting hundreds of individual store owners." Therefore, marketers hoped to devise a highly visual activation to capture their attention, generate product awareness, relay the company's values and messaging in a passing glance, and lure at least some of them into the booth to learn more.

Big-Brand Blues
To address their goals, Knutson and Hollowitsch thought an aisle-side traffic builder would best fit the bill. They reasoned that, in comparison, a full-booth activation would likely bust the budget; plus, it wouldn't afford ample exhibit space for conversation areas and a few sampling stations.

Along with building booth traffic, this attention-getting lure would also have to funnel interested parties into the exhibit for deeper conversations while still delivering meaningful content for those less-qualified people whizzing by in the aisles. If attendees weren't ready to buy at the show, marketers expected the activation to prime their pumps with memorable messaging, increasing the chance of Organic Valley being top of mind when it came time to purchase.

But just like the tax code, these objectives involved some serious complications. Remember those behemoth firms that devoured countless organic companies? Like a swarm of locusts, they'd begun invading NPE West and eating acres of floor space. "Brands like Kraft, Nestlé, and Dannon have larger budgets," Hollowitsch says. "We have slim profit margins, and we pay our farmers first and our marketing budgets second. Consequently, it's more and more difficult to stand out amid the big players." And standing out was critically important because the team also wanted to generate consumer awareness by way of industry influencers.

The co-op's end customers are consumers, few of whom attend NPE West. So rather than promoting their at-show efforts to consumers via social media, Knutson and Hollowitsch hoped to present a compelling story to the food-industry bloggers, nutritionists, dietitians, etc. who attend the show in droves. If the narrative attracted influencers and struck the right chord, these folks would spread the word to their consumer followers.

A Seed Idea Takes Root
The team quickly enlisted the help of exhibit house Astound Group Inc. But the co-op's plucky marketers pretty much knew what they wanted already and just needed a partner to handle the execution.

"We know magic happens when we get buyers onto one of our farms where they can meet our farmers and see the care that goes into production," Hollowitsch says. "Any time we can connect farmers with consumers and retail customers, we can promote our core values of authenticity, the best animal care, and environmental responsibility, and create a genuine and memorable experience."

The fly in the butter churn is that it's a little tricky to transport thousands of attendees to rural farms during a trade show. That's why a few years ago Hollowitsch and Knutson developed an in-booth virtual-reality experience in which attendees donned headsets and virtually toured various farms to experience the Organic Valley difference for themselves. The trouble was that the experience was costly and some attendees were reluctant to even try on the headsets, much less sit through the experience. And truth be told, a high-tech tactic couldn't really deliver the wholesome vibe the team was going for. But the concept was a Grade A idea.

Heading into NPE West 2019, then, marketers wanted to craft a FaceTime-like experience whereby attendees could interact with farmers across the country. Although concept creation preceded the VR attempt, Knutson and Hollowitsch had yet to find a vendor willing to take it on. "We'd reached out to several companies," Hollowitsch says, "but they all turned us down, believing the risk of failure was too high given the technical requirements."

The crew at Astound, however, agreed to wrangle the task. It developed a software program to host the communication exchange and then enlisted event-technology firm Stamm Media, which helped with testing and delivered the necessary hardware. The partners analyzed which service providers afforded the strongest and most reliable signals to each of the family farmers who would connect live from their homesteads, as well as to the Anaheim Convention Center in California where NPE West would be held in March 2019.

Next, they distributed the necessary hardware, which included iPads, microphones, tripods, and Wi-Fi boosters, to farmers and trained them on their use. Finally, they tested the whole shebang with a soft launch at NPE East, a smaller East Coast iteration of NPE West that draws only about a third of its attendees. Here, farmers talked with showgoers courtesy of a relatively low-key setup comprising Padzillas (a sort of oversized iPad) positioned along an aisle. And while the experience was a resounding success and proved the technology was viable, it paled in comparison to the full-on rollout at NPE West – an experience Sizzle Awards judges later hailed as "an amazing and innovative creation that put a real, live face on the brand."

Face Value
Aptly named FarmerTime, the attraction at NPE West featured a 10-by-16-foot LED screen positioned along one side of the 30-by-40-foot booth and at the far end of the show's main aisle. "Anyone who walked onto the show floor and looked down the aisle couldn't help but notice the display," says Robyn Stepler, Astound's director of client partnerships. "The screen was also part of a larger vignette that included faux-turf flooring, stools resembling hay bales, and authentic milk cans." Graphics on both sides of the screen complemented the display and included text reading "Questions about farming? Ask our farmer." and "Live on the farm. Live in the booth."

During the show, the screen displayed a near-continuous live feed from a total of eight rural farmers. When each farmer took his or her turn on-screen, a sidebar on the left displayed the organization's logo and FarmerTime moniker, the name of the farmer and his or her farm, and a U.S. map pinpointing its location. As attendees approached, many were visibly surprised to discover a real, live farmer ready to converse with them. Meanwhile, the farmer greeted them and offered to answer questions or simply talk shop. In the background, attendees saw everything from pastures full of dairy cows to barn stalls filled with adorable newborn calves.

Anticipating that booth visitors might be unsure of what to say or ask, the team brought in six farmer families to emcee the experience. Usually comprising a husband-and-wife pairing working in two-hour shifts throughout the show, the in-booth farmers helped visitors engage with their on-screen cohorts. "Emcees had a list of fun facts about each remote farmer and talking points for visitors," Hollowitsch says. For example, if a farmer known for his environmental efforts appeared on-screen, the emcee might have prompted attendees with something like this: "Bob Johnson is a huge environmental proponent. Why don't you ask him about his unique sustainability practices?" In addition, all farmer participants were part of the co-op's Farmers in Marketing program, an initiative whereby the co-op provides farmers with stipends in exchange for their participation in promotional activities. Therefore, most already knew each other, making the exchanges more organic.

Farmers appeared live on-screen throughout the four-day show with roughly 10-minute breaks as in-booth staff switched feeds from one remote locale to another. On average, each person remained on-screen for about an hour before another took his or her place. During the minimal downtime, the screen ran a continuous loop of commercials, product facts, and previously recorded interviews with employees, founders, and farmers.

Not surprisingly, the authentic experience enthralled attendees, drawing existing customers as well as those unfamiliar with the co-op. And as expected, the tactic created a buzz of its own as word of the endeavor spread via unsolicited social-media posts from bloggers and influencers.

Culling the Herd
Along with emceeing the experience, the on-site farmers helped to qualify attendees and funnel interested prospects to the rest of the booth, where product experts stood poised to answer questions and meet with buyers. "Our bottom-line goal is to generate sales, and we need in-depth conversations to do that," Hollowitsch says. "FarmerTime delivered on this directive. In addition to the emcees working their magic, salespeople stood off to the side of the screen and watched the interactions. The moment people committed to the experience, the emcee or sales staff eased into the encounter and asked if they could scan their badges, if they wanted a product sample, if they already carried our products, or if they wanted to talk to someone and learn more."

Salespeople's covert positions also allowed them to better read attendees' badges and thereby ascertain their titles and the companies they represented. This way, staff could target key buyers and often open conversations with an idea of who the prospects were and what they might need.

This soft-sell approach wasn't just on par with Organic Valley's culture; it was paramount to the program's success. "At most trade shows, staffers stand around the perimeter of the booth waiting to pounce on people," Hollowitsch says. "Or at least that's how many attendees interpret the situation. Therefore, the initial exchange can be off-putting. But FarmerTime incorporated an almost unnoticeable sell. People could hang out, watch, learn, and interact without a sales pitch. Most were so enamored by what they saw that they didn't notice they'd been qualified or directed into the product-info areas until they were munching on samples or chatting with one of the sales reps."

Udderly Effective
"My gut tells me that our soft-sell approach and the very nature of this face-to-face interaction were the key reasons our leads jumped so much," Hollowitsch says. And those lead counts didn't just jump – they soared. While marketers hoped to increase leads by 50 percent, this metric shot up more than 215 percent compared to the previous year, drawing both new and existing buyers.

Along these same lines, the activation scored upwards of 34.5 million impressions via traditional media outlets, a 37.5 percent increase over 2018 stats and 12.5 percent above marketers' goal. Plus, the co-op netted 333,000 social-media impressions and reached more than 230,000 unique people through influencers' posts and tweets.

Nevertheless, no good deed goes unpunished, as FarmerTime inadvertently raised the event-marketing bar for the future. "Our internal stakeholders were beyond pleased, as were our farmers, who felt this was one of the most brilliant things we've ever done," Hollowitsch says. "But now they're start- ing to ask how we plan to top this," she jokes. "It's going to be a challenge."

Moreover, the team may have made more work for themselves, as a few key retailers asked them to recreate the FarmerTime experience within their stores. "It's a huge indicator of success for us when a retailer wants to tell our story to their customers," Hollowitsch says. Indeed, Organic Valley's results aren't just indicators of success; they're also a testament to the power of face-to-face marketing. E

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