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11 ways to become a more effective dairy advocate

Stan Erwine for Progressive Dairyman Published on 24 February 2016
Dairy farmers care for their animals

We often get questions from dairy farmers about how they can become more effective at telling their story to build and convey trust and confidence in dairy to consumers.

These questions often focus on two areas: the farmer’s desire to be an advocate and their comfort and confidence levels engaging with consumers.

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How can you best convey and demonstrate your commitment to your cows, milk safety and caring for the natural resources entrusted to you? The following is a list of principles and steps to help effectively engage friends, family, neighbors and community members in conversations about dairy.

1. Shift your focus to the consumers and their questions and interests. We tend to start sharing before asking questions and connecting with consumer values.

2. Remember people don’t buy what you do – they buy why you do it.

Author Simon Sinek looked across leading organizations and discovered what separated the great ones from the not-so-great ones. He calls it the “Golden Circle,” which starts with why. He makes the point that all businesses know what they do, many know how they do it, but few can convey the why or greater purpose.

So how does Sinek’s principle apply to dairy? Ask yourself: What is your business’s purpose and reason for being? Profitability is not a purpose; it is a result. How does what you do enrich a family’s or consumer’s life?

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How do you make your community a better place? Today’s consumer wants to emotionally connect with your beliefs and purpose – the “why.” We’ve traditionally talked to one another about our dairies further ingraining our focus on the “what.” For example:

  • Incorrect: Beginning with “what” – “Our cows are fed scientifically balanced diets that help them produce more high-quality milk. They also see a veterinarian weekly because we care for our cows, and well-cared-for cows produce more milk, and that enables us to stay in business.”

  • Correct: Beginning with “why” – “Our family is dedicated to providing the best milk and dairy products for you and your family. We believe we must continuously improve the quality and safety of our products and how we care for our cows and the land entrusted to us because it’s the right thing to do. We’d love for you to visit us.”

3. Remember that in high-concern/low-trust situations, emotions often trump rational thought. Use these steps to engage consumers successfully in such situations:

  • You must first gain trust before you are believed. Empathy and emotion must precede “facts.”

  • Use simple messages and responses followed by, “Have I answered your question?”

  • Put things in context – lend a broader perspective.

  • Work to develop values-based messages that begin with why and acknowledge you have long accepted your ethical obligation to produce nutritious and safe milk responsibly for their families.

  • Don’t lead with science.

  • After establishing your consumer-focused purpose or beliefs, provide three examples of what’s done on the farm to support them. These are sometimes called “Pillars of Proof” (see illustration above).

  • Think of this phase of consumer engagement like grade school’s “show and tell.”

  • Keep your examples simple; avoid becoming too technical or over-explaining. Analogy: You have a doctorate in dairy – the consumer has a third-grade education.

  • Finally, translate your values into measurable action and share how you know this is effective. This is when you use science and records as verification – but not as moral justification.

4. Think of your audience in terms of the “moveable middle.” A significant segment of consumers have not formed an opinion but have concerns about animal care, environmental stewardship and responsible use of antibiotics and technology.

Concentrate your time and efforts on the “moveable middle,” not agenda-driven, anti-dairy groups. (Figure 1)

Think of your audience in terms of the "moveable middle"

5. Be patient. You may not accomplish everything in one conversation. Your goal is to establish trust and build relationships. Offer to be available to answer future questions.

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6. Practice owning your messages – personalize them to your dairy, family and community. Make them heartfelt, not recited.

7. Research shows time and again consumers want to hear and learn from farmers. They want to believe in you, but many don’t know a dairy farmer. Look for opportunities to initiate consumer conversations. Don’t overlook family, friends and neighbors. (Table 1)

Consumer trust monitor for dairy

8. Quit talking at people. Work to create trust and relationships, not “win arguments.” Stay positive and share stories that come from the heart.

9. Devote one hour each week to dairy advocacy.

10. Become engaged in social media. If you don’t have a farm Facebook page, start one.

11. Contact your state and regional dairy checkoff organization for tools and training. Seek contact information at DMI local checkoff.

There is not much in this world more authentic than a man or woman who owns and runs a dairy farm. Remember, the majority of Americans once had family involved in dairy and agriculture and often relate to your work ethic, integrity and love of the land – but have often been misinformed by something they saw or read about dairy and have no one to ask but Google.

When you have a conversation with one of your customers, greet them with a smile. When they ask you a question, thank them for asking, even if it seems accusatory – you have nothing to hide. In many cases, their question is not mean-spirited. They just don’t know and are asking the only way they know how.

It’s difficult to not take poorly worded questions personally, but you’ll be well on your advocacy journey when you greet your customer with a smile and thank them for wanting to learn more about why you love producing milk and dairy products for their families.

When it comes to dairy advocacy, put yourself in the consumer’s shoes and communicate in a warm and personal way. You’ll be making a difference and new friends.  PD

Stan Erwine is the vice president of farmer relations and activation for Dairy Management Inc. (DMI). Email Stan Erwine

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