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Marketing to a Changing Consumer

By Diane Baedeker Petit




Confreda communicates with some key target audiences via an e-newsletter, Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook, and customers are talking back. Ray Aubin says that's how customers prefer to communicate.
Photos by Diane Baedeker Petit.

Relationships: That's what Ray Aubin believes his business is all about. As general manager for Confreda Greenhouses & Farms in Hope, R.I., you'd think he'd tout the wide variety of products the farm and garden center offers, or the successful agritourism operation that draws thousands of visitors each fall. He does talk about both of those things when describing Confreda's business model, but he boils the farm's success as a wholesale and retail produce and greenhouse operation down to the importance of relationships. He's not just talking about the relationship between employee and customer; the farm capitalizes on relationships on a number of levels.

"Today, because we're serving a different demographic, moving away from baby boomers to Gen X and Y, it's a relationship economy. What our demographic values is that deeper connection with products and services that are being offered."

The Confreda family began farming in 1922. Today, farming just over 400 acres of land in Cranston and Warwick, their operations represent one of the oldest and largest commercial vegetable farms in the state of Rhode Island. Aubin, who has degrees in agribusiness, economics and marketing, ran his own retail greenhouse business for 36 years and joined Confreda Greenhouses & Farms as general manager in 2008.

A joint study on the food marketing industry supports Aubin's theory. Titled "Trouble in Aisle 5," it was released last year by Jefferies, a global investment bank, and AlixPartners, a global business advisory firm. The study, which included a survey of 2,000 consumers, found that traditional food marketing is likely to see accelerating challenges over the next few years.

The confluence of changing demographics, economic factors and customer preferences has the potential to create a long-term disruption across the food industry value chain that transforms where and how consumers shop for groceries, as well as what products they choose.



To understand the needs of its customers, Confreda researches the behavior of the farm's target markets and segments the demographics they're trying to reach.

Over the next decade, the "baby boomers" (born between 1946 and 1964) will pass the baton to the "millennials," born between 1982 and 2001 and also known as "Generation Y" or "Gen Y." As a result, established food brands and traditional grocery stores will be pressured at both ends by sets of consumers with very different values. The implications may not be good for traditional grocery stores, but they're very positive for farm marketers.

"Baby boomers really didn't consider food safety or where food comes from. Gen Y is very concerned about not only where it comes from, but also how it's handled and processed. They want to know how it's made, who's making it. They want to be involved in the process from the beginning to the end," explains Aubin.

Another thing that's really important to the millennials, Aubin says, is to take along their friends in the process. They start discussions via social media about how great a product or service is. "Whether it be luxury goods or fresh produce, they want to include their friends so that they can all take the ride together."

Aubin, 63, says that boomers have a different view of luxury goods than millennials do. "Our view is that we worked for it, we earned it, so we want to have luxury goods that the average consumer couldn't afford. It's a different behavior entirely. The boomers didn't want the masses to have it, whereas Gen Y wants to bring as many people along on the ride as possible, whether they can afford it or not," he notes.

"We know that Gen Y will make a real impact in the marketplace very soon," Aubin adds. "It's appropriate to be talking about how we're going to service them, and understand what they want and how we can deliver that product or service to them in the way that they want to absorb it, if you will."



Confreda Greenhouses & Farms in Hope, R.I., is a wholesale and retail produce and greenhouse operation.

Mike Marini of Marini Farm in Ipswich, Mass., has positioned his farm marketing to reach both millennials and baby boomers. "Things are changing fast. It's a great time for local farms. Some of the food safety scares have made people think about where their food comes from. With social media, people can ask questions," he says.

Marini's customers were asking questions about GMO crops, so he used Facebook to assure them that the farm does not grow any GMO crops. "Enough people were saying that they don't want GMOs, so we don't grow them," he adds.

Marini Farm, a family-run business now in its third generation, grows fruits and vegetables on over 200 acres. This produce is supplied to local supermarkets and sold at the retail farm market.

To understand the needs of its customers, Confreda researches the behavior of the farm's target markets and segments the demographics they're trying to reach. Confreda employees are asked to relate what products and services they hear customers asking for.

"We do a lot of entertaining here. We have busloads of people coming in. Over 50,000 patrons come through here in the fall. We know how to deliver that product or service to families, individuals and all the demographics that we target. We segment our marketing," says Aubin.

"Scary Acres, the nighttime attraction, is an entirely different demographic than the farm market demographic," he explains. "And you could argue that the garden center is a separate demographic. Everyone eats, but not everyone gardens."



The confluence of changing demographics, economic factors and customer preferences has the potential to create a long-term disruption across the food industry value chain that transforms where and how consumers shop for groceries, as well as what products they choose.

Aubin says the challenge is communicating effectively to so many different audiences. "The only way to do it is to segment them and have a consistent message going out in terms of how you can help them find solutions to what they're looking for," he states.

Confreda communicates with some key target audiences via an e-newsletter, Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook, and customers are talking back. Aubin says that's how customers prefer to communicate.

"They can go to probably 50 garden centers within 10 miles to buy these products; if we don't do a good job in terms of communication and differentiating ourselves in the marketplace, then we don't have a shot in getting a piece of that business," says Aubin. "That's why it's important to understand behavior: how individuals are brought up, in what environment, and what's going to get them to make the buying decision."

Marini, 35, says that it's amazing how well social media works for his farm. "One day I had broccoli left in the field, so I posted photos on Facebook, and so many people showed up [that] we sold out."

Marini recently launched a smartphone app that helps customers stay up-to-date on crops in season and special farm events, and he uses push notifications to send coupons directly to customers' phones. While Marini says that new technology is working with all generations, he does caution that farmers shouldn't forget about loyal customers who may not use the technology.

Aubin talks to his staff about the need to show empathy toward customers. "These people have probably had as bad a day as we have. How can we make their day? We instill in all our staff that they are empowered to do whatever it takes to satisfy the customer."

As an example, Aubin tells a story about an older customer who was shopping in the garden center recently. She was interested in a number of items but didn't seem likely to buy much, complaining about prices several times. Then she went into the farm market and ordered a sandwich at the deli. While eating her lunch at a table in the market, she dropped half her sandwich. The staff immediately offered to make her another half sandwich at no charge. On her way out of the store, the woman told all the incoming customers how great the customer service was.

"We need to be day makers. We need to make somebody's day when they come in here. There's not really good customer service at a lot of places," says Aubin. "It isn't that hard to be customer-centric and have that at the forefront of everything you do. However, it's a culture; it's commitment. It's something we work on a lot here because we feel that's the future."

Community supported agriculture (CSA) components have been added to both farms' retail operations. Marini says that the younger generation doesn't have time for shopping, so they prefer to just pick up a box of produce.

Aubin says today's consumers are different because they tend to be better educated and have access to technology that allows easy comparison shopping. While some retailers see the ubiquitous smartphone as a threat that can thwart in-store sales when customers find a better deal online, Confreda encourages customers to use smartphones to spread the word about their on-farm experiences to their friends and followers.

Customers are encouraged to tweet and check Facebook while at the farm. To foster that during the agritourism season, the Scary Acres manager has set up a number of stations for taking photos, with Halloween scenery and decorations like round hay bales painted with pumpkin faces.

Confreda also partners with companies, including the Pawtucket Red Sox, Providence Bruins, banks and local radio stations, to do cross-promotion and capitalize on each other's brand identity. As a result, messages about Confreda get posted to partners' sizable social media audiences.

Marini Farm still uses traditional advertising in addition to its successful social media efforts, and it still pays off. "Everything is working, so it spreads me a little thin, but everything I grow I can sell," says Marini.

"Local, fresh, farm and all those buzzwords are a great place for us to be in 2013," says Aubin. "Understanding that we need to deliver what our customer is asking for. Once the patron comes through the door, the real work starts."

The author, a freelance writer, is a public affairs specialist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Amherst, Mass., and was previously director of communications at the Massachusetts Department of Food & Agriculture. Read past marketing columns by this author online at http://farmmarketing.blogspot.com.