Ignore the Competition: PR Lessons from Working with Food Commodity Boards

The best way to beat the competition, you ask?  Ignore them.

It may sound like marketing blasphemy, but this bit of unconventional wisdom comes from nearly three decades of working on behalf of commodity board clients, who are prohibited from disparaging or even comparing themselves with the competition.

Disparaging others isn’t my style anyway. But, the discipline of avoiding comparison to other products in the same category can be a challenge at first. Still, these guidelines have helped me find an even better way to promote and elevate our clients and their products, which I call the “marketing high road.” It doesn’t hurt that I’ve had the privilege of promoting some great products for the past seven years at EHY, including honey.

Instead of targeting the competition, or paying a lot of attention to them in general, our focus on the National Honey Board (NHB) account is to build creative and strategic programs leveraging our client’s unique product attributes.

Each year we challenge ourselves to grow market share (or menu) by developing fresh, focused, and relevant marketing initiatives. For example, we host annual Honey Summits, but always add a new program element or twist – such as engaging foodservice trends forecaster Suzy Badaracco of Culinary Tides – as our guest presenter this past year. It proved the perfect set-up to showcasing honey’s trending applications and provided value-added for our industry participants.

Hosted at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, NHB’s 2017 Honey Summit delivered sweet inspiration to top-notch food and beverage pros from across the country.

At the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, NHB’s 2017 Honey Summit hosted top-notch food and beverage pros from across the country.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, ignoring the competition has proven more liberating than restrictive. It frees you from the pitfalls of copycat marketing, and positions you to chart your own road to success. It also allows you to stay focused on your strategy and objectives. Ironically, trying to continuously monitor and “one-up” the competition means your energy is focused on them – distracting you from the more important work of investing in, building content around, and touting the client’s assets. And if you have a limited budget, this more expedient approach is all the more critical.

Granted, it is important to know your competition. But that should merely serve as a base to help you carve out points of differentiation and unique selling proposition. In my experience, the most direct path to move your client forward is to focus exclusively on their product’s own attributes. Instead of dwelling on the competition (how they are marketing and positioning themselves, etc.), I suggest a more direct course of action.

Know the competition so you can identify your points of differentiation.

For the National Honey Board, the sweetener category would be the obvious competitive set. However, instead of zeroing in on the other products (we couldn’t under USDA governance anyway) and orienting our positioning around other sweeteners, we hone in on honey’s unique and compelling properties and characteristics:  Flavor, function, versatility; wholesome, all-natural; made by bees. 

Build a program leveraging your unique assets.

We create strategic annual programs for the National Honey Board that include a mix of marketing elements (including PR, advertising and industry relations) to promote honey’s unique properties and characteristics to the foodservice industry. Our goal is to inform and inspire chefs, mixologists and other menu decision makers about honey so they will use more of it different ways.

Over the past program year, we’ve provided additional emphasis on honey as a product of bees, because of the growing interest in honey bees, their role in pollination and the world’s food supply. Again, the key is leveraging the product’s unique assets, and certainly “made by bees” from the nectar of flowers, is a significant point of differentiation.

Conduct annual research to monitor the product’s own trajectory.

The National Honey Board conducts research annually to track honey menu trends as well as foodservice operator attitude and usage of honey. We compare honey’s trajectory year over year, rather than investing significant time and money researching the competition. According to the latest report from Datassential, we are excited to report that honey menuing is up across every foodservice category, menu category, and day part for 2017.

Compete against yourself to find new and better ways to leverage your unique selling proposition.

Instead of locking horns with a perceived competitor, we challenge ourselves to continuously find new ways to promote honey and grow usage in foodservice. We are our own competition. We inject key learnings from previous years, make any strategic shifts in concert with the client’s overall marketing program, and strive to create “smarter” and more focused programming with each year.

At the same time, we build sufficient flexibility into our programming in order to capitalize on emerging opportunities – which abound in the foodservice industry. Focus and flexibility has proven to be the perfect pairing for the NHB foodservice marketing program’s success.

Monitor industry trends and growth opportunities. Find ways to tap into these instead of chasing the competition.

We could worry about new or existing entries in the sweetener category. But instead, we set our sights on platforms and opportunities for honey, including tapping into emerging food and beverage trends.

One noteworthy example is the NHB’s successful honey beverage program over the past five years. We identified growth opportunities for honey in the beverage category, just as beverage innovation was taking off in the foodservice industry. The consumer’s growing penchant for wholesome, all-natural ingredients, made honey poised for success.

We built a multi-faceted marketing program around honey beverages, and created a real buzz about honey as an all-natural flavor ingredient and alternative sweetener for cocktails and non-alcoholic beverages. The proof of success is in the menuing data. It shows significant and ongoing growth since the 2012 launch of the program. And we did it without comparing ourselves to other flavor ingredients or sweeteners.

Ignoring the competition is an efficient and ethical approach to marketing that has netted exceptional results for our clients. I embrace the opportunity to follow this more disciplined approach and make our clients shine even more brightly, because our marketing spotlight is focused exclusively on them. 

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Andrea Schepke PR Director EvansHardy+Young
Andrea Schepke, PR Director

After serving as Managing Director in the Los Angeles and Chicago offices of Hill & Knowlton and supervising accounts like the Almond Board and Network For A Healthy California (5-A-Day) for Porter Novelli, Andrea joined us to take the reins of the National Honey Board foodservice account. Her strategically directed combination of events, media relations and advertising have helped create significant buzz in a very important market for our client.