In marketing, it’s Got to Be NC

Photos courtesy of the N.C. Dept. of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
A rich display of the state’s produce greeted state fair attendees.

The North American Agricultural Marketing Officials (NAAMO) named the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Got to Be NC marketing development program as its 2008 Agricultural Marketing Excellence winner. The campaign’s multifaceted approach to increasing consumer awareness of the state’s agricultural products helped secure the award, which was presented at the organization’s national meeting in Milwaukee last July.

What is NAAMO?

The NAAMO (www.naamo.org), a subsidiary of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, is an international organization of state and provincial government workers who provide domestic and international marketing services to agricultural and food industries in their areas. It helps improve the marketing, handling, storage, processing, transportation and distribution of agricultural products, emphasizing better preparation for market.

Jeff Thomas, a marketing specialist with the North Carolina agriculture department, says that NAAMO facilitates officials’ networking circles and alerts them to new resources.

“It helps with sharing knowledge of issues across the country,” he adds.

NAAMO president, Cindy Garretson-Weibel, says North Carolina’s program earned the award because of the comprehensive nature of its overall marketing plan.

“Got to Be NC is a very exciting winner because of its ability to connect to the consumer,” she adds. “They have a lot of great ideas.”

Garretson-Weibel, director of the Wyoming Business Council’s agribusiness division, indicates that NAAMO member states or provinces may self-nominate for the honor, which is determined by the organization’s board of directors.

North Carolina’s marketing programs

The North Carolina ag department (www.ncagr.gov) has made marketing a priority for more than 20 years. In 1985, it unveiled Goodness Grows in North Carolina to assist growers and other producers in marketing. Qualified producers of the state’s foodstuffs can use the Goodness Grows name and product label to help identify locally produced items; fruit and vegetables must meet USDA Number 1 grades or better.

Goodness Grows members benefit from the campaign’s cooperative programming with the retail and food service industries. Cooperative and umbrella advertising, and a wealth of other marketing services, is available.

An outstanding facet of the program links growers to major retailers. During 2008, the department facilitated informational meetings with Whole Foods, Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club. The no-cost events helped more than 200 farmers and processors learn about the chain stores’ requirements, allowing attendees to talk with scores of company officials, who sampled their offerings.

(Left) Unveiled in 2008, the Got to Be NC Ag Jam brought together farmers, popular musicians and the public to celebrate the state’s number one industry: agriculture. (Right) This state fair exhibit says it all.

Farm Fresh directs consumers to local produce by coordinating a comprehensive, searchable listing on the ag department’s Web site. An offshoot is the certified roadside market program, which lends support to direct marketers. Those who sell primarily through stands and offer an inventory comprised of 51 percent or more items grown themselves are eligible. Signage and monthly e-mail newsletters are among the marketing tools that members receive.

Specialty foods haven’t been forgotten. Flavors of Carolina promotes unique Tar Heel offerings with a Dish This! online catalog. In conjunction with the N.C. Specialty Food Association, the ag department helps facilitate networking, educational conferences, trade shows and distribution assistance.

Got to Be NC

In the summer of 2005, Got to Be NC was unveiled as an initiative to enhance the existing marketing efforts.

“It provided a fresh approach to get people involved [with locally produced food],” Thomas says.

He says the program, which has received grant funding from the Golden Leaf Foundation’s tobacco settlement dollars since 2006, has several goals, and it assists farmers with identifying their products as produced within the state and helps build consumer awareness of those foods.

“[Got to Be NC] keeps farmers producing and on the farm,” Thomas says, “and lets the general public enjoy the fruits of their labor. Choosing where your food comes from is a good thing, especially given the amount of diversity available [here].”

With the new umbrella slogan came additional offerings and events. In 2006, the Best Dish food service competition was born. Independent and chain restaurants stir up their best recipes featuring ingredients grown in the state. An independent judging panel selects the winners, which are announced at the state fair, and celebrity chefs such as Paula Deen and Bobby Flay have presented past awards. Thomas says this and other restaurant promotions facilitate the storytelling behind the products and prompt consumers to seek out the locally grown ingredients for home cooking.

The same year, the Big Cart, a 13-foot-tall-by-15-foot-long shopping buggy with a Chevrolet 396 V8 engine, rolled off the assembly line, putting a face that can’t be missed to the Got to Be NC campaign. The enormous cart shows up at baseball games, festivals and retail promotions, and is featured in television ads.

The program sponsors retailer promotions such as newspaper ads, product displays, customized Got to Be NC signs in stores and product samplings. Food service promotions utilize sales staff incentive contests, food shows and food drives, which include table signs and wall posters, as well as Goodness Grows waitstaff contests in participating restaurants.

Got to Be NC celebration days have been conducted by several retail chains. From July 1 through August 14, 2008, all 129 Wal-Mart supercenters within the state highlighted local produce with customized signs, displays and labels. Sixteen supercenter locations conducted sampling events with 20 Goodness Grows in NC member companies participating. One store was the site of a “Got to Be NC Homegrown Concert Series” show featuring Heidi Newfield.

The program, which won the Produce Business Magazine’s marketing excellence award in 2006 and 2007, expanded on the success of the concert series last year by sponsoring the Got to Be NC Ag Jam, where 10,000 people enjoyed North Carolina-only food and music from such artists as Blake Shelton, Tracy Byrd, Eric Church, Jake Owen, Heartland, Jamey Johnson and Blackberry Smoke. The ag department says that Ag Jam is the country’s only locally produced food festival conducted in a concert setting.

“This event brings farms and agriculture to consumers who may not have visited farms,” Thomas says.

How successful is Got to Be NC?

There is no doubt that the Got to Be NC initiative has been a winner with funding sources and industry organizations, but what has it done for the state’s growers? Thomas points to several benefits.

Membership in the Goodness Grows program has increased from 1,200 to 1,500 since 2006. Some participating growers and producers have reported sales increases of 10 and 40 percent; restaurants have indicated 10 to 30 percent gains. Thomas says participants compare sales at the same time of year to paint an accurate picture of results, and adds that sales figures continue to improve for companies that have taken part year after year.

Participants have positive things to say about Got to Be NC. One vegetable grower reports that the program signage drove more sales than his old signs that didn’t mention the campaign.

“Once involved, most want to continue and increase their level of involvement,” Thomas adds, stressing that members can custom-design the program, utilizing only the elements that are most beneficial for their operations. “We try to do everything on a partnership basis with growers; they are as much an owner as the department.”

One plus of the partnership philosophy is additional flexibility in collaborations. One member was interested in a billboard for his direct market operation and the department was anxious for more visibility in his area. They teamed up to fund a cooperative billboard for three years.

Thomas says the program’s gains in engaging the marketplace and forming media partnerships have led to the concept’s rapid growth over the three years since its inception.

“Got to Be NC is a central point to handle issues and put a face behind the products,” he adds.

He admits that that success does have its downsides. The popularity of events means that department staff are stretched thin at times, so they seek to streamline programs and make the campaign more efficient. Meanwhile, the marketing staff teams up to get their message out to food buyers.

“Although we focus on consumers, we never forget the farmers; they drive everything,” Thomas says.

The author is a freelance writer based in Greensboro, N.C.