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Work & Wellbeing Brand Strategy Agriculture

Regenerative agriculture is coming. Which brands will get us there?

By Ruairi Curran | Executive Strategy Director

The Brandtech Group

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March 8, 2023 | 8 min read

By reframing choice, food brands can fast-forward to an even more planet-friendly era, says Ruairi Curran of Gravity Road (part of The Brandtech Group). But who will plant the next seed?

A farm seen from above: half verdant and lush; half fallow

Which food brands are ahead of the curve on the coming regenerative agriculture shift? / Bence Balla-Schottner via Unsplash

Not long ago, I didn’t know that our planet survives thanks to a few centimeters of healthy soil that grows 95% of our food. I didn’t know that if the world keeps going the way it’s going, 90% of that topsoil will be at risk by 2050. I certainly didn’t know anything about regenerative agriculture, or how it’s different from sustainability.

If you don’t work with a food brand, you likely don’t know any of this either. But if food brand leaders flex their story-telling muscles, that will all change this year.

Regenerative agriculture is an approach to farming that focuses on rebuilding and revitalizing soil health, enhancing ecosystem health and sequestering carbon in the soil, helping to mitigate climate change. Just as the word ‘meta’ suddenly re-shaped the digital world in 2021 and 2022, the word ‘regenerative’ is set to reshape the food world in 2023 and beyond.

The once-skeptical farming community has embraced it, having seen the damage conventional farming does to soil, and the benefits regenerative agriculture can bring. The biggest global food corporations are nearly all on board; Mars, Unilever, Nestlé, McDonald’s, PepsiCo, Danone, and General Mills have all turned-on large-scale programs.

The only ones still out of the loop are ordinary people. That’s a big problem; with nobody educating people about regenerative agriculture, or raising awareness, or driving demand for products produced using these practices, people are not able to support its widespread adoption.

Marketing superpowers

It isn’t surprising that not much has been done so far. Changing agricultural systems is complex, not as sexy as the metaverse, and much harder to explain in consumer media channels.

The onus lies with the bright brains managing our food brands. We’re on the cusp, and marketers and brands hold the keys to breakthrough.

To paraphrase Ally Kingston in The Great Reset, we are an industry with immense power to shift perceptions, and we have the responsibility to uphold this new societal shift, so we need to assert ourselves. Just as excellence in marketing achieved a step-change in awareness of Fairtrade, it will now determine which brands will be celebrated for supporting regeneratively farmed foods.

Just as expectations shifted away from battery-farmed to free-range eggs, we can reframe the next generation’s choices around how food is farmed. Like free-range eggs, regeneratively farmed food is an alternative to the dominant norm; an alternative that is better for the planet and for biodiversity.

Who dares wins

One could argue that 2023 is not the best time for a brand to step up to this challenge; that, amid great financial pressures, short-term, product-centered messages are the order of the day, and longer-term brand narratives should be shelved until the storm has passed.

The risk with this approach is that, by the time the storm has passed, your brand is just another follower trying to keep up, not a leader out in front; that competitive advantage has been handed over to the brands that acted first, and your brand has to run twice as fast to enjoy the same attribution and equity as first-movers.

Bold brand leaders won’t underestimate that a growing number of people are becoming more conscious of the environmental impact of food production, are looking for more planet-friendly options, and are willing to pay a premium for products that align with their values and interests.

A regenerative farming proposition can attract a growing consumer base, inject fresh ‘new-news’ energy into a food brand’s narrative, and command a premium price positioning in the market. It sits in a sweet spot: a planet-friendly brand purpose, squarely rooted in product.

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Leader brands and progressive behaviors

It took the slow rise of the organic and sustainable food movements to drive the shift to free-range eggs. The shift to regenerative agriculture can’t take so long, and in the era it ushers in, the difference between ‘old’ and ‘new’ brands won’t be as easily signaled with a logo. To connect with next-generation audiences, marketers need to find ways to look and behave differently than traditional food brands.

Our client McCain understood this: instead of lecturing audiences about changes to farming in traditional media spaces, they introduced ‘regen’ as a new food term to the world with limited-edition Regen Fries, the first commercially produced fries made from regeneratively farmed potatoes.

To emphasize this new news to next-generation audiences, McCain partnered with Bored & Hungry, an NFT-themed restaurant, to launch the fries, signaling progressive brand behaviors while leveraging the cultural currency of Bored Ape NFTs.

It also built a ‘virtual twin’ of its real-life, regenerative ‘Farm of the Future’ in New Brunswick, Canada in Roblox’s Livetopia role-playing game. Players could discover how regenerative farming helps improve soil health by interacting with farmers, completing farming-sim tasks, and building a farm.

To date, the virtual Farm of the Future has received over 20m total visits (Walmart Land saw 13.4m).

Changing the world

To have a transformative effect on the health of our planet, regenerative agriculture requires many things, including financial and technical support and R&D investment to make the system a viable option for farmers (particularly the 33 million smallholder farmers in climate-vulnerable Africa).

Our industry can’t help with those things. But we can plant seeds of hope in the next generation by changing attitudes and re-framing consumer choices. If we use our marketing superpowers responsibly, we can respond to author Wendell Berry’s argument that we need not “the piecemeal technological solutions that our society now offers, but … a change of cultural values that will encourage in the whole population the necessary respect, restraint, and care”.

Work & Wellbeing Brand Strategy Agriculture

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The Brandtech Group

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