Earlier this month I spent a week in New England conducting sales and marketing trainings for the Vermont Farm & Forest Viability Program and the Carrot Project. They invited educators to offer trainings on finance, marketing and management to individuals that provide business assistance and capital to agricultural and food enterprises.

It was a wonderful week meeting the people who do this good work in New England, reconnecting with friends, and dialoging about the often very difficult task of helping farm and food enterprises develop strategies to solidify, differentiate and grow their business.

I presented five frameworks and found the discussion on one particularly rich: positioning statements. A positioning statement is a strategic framework that defines how a business identifies itself to its customer vis-à-vis the competition. But how does a farm business, or a food hub, that looks and smells a lot like the farm or food hub next door, stand apart? How can these businesses differentiate themselves in a crowded market?

The answer is important to consider if you want your carrot, or your service, or your work, to be valued more greatly by your customers and donors so your organization can grow. In this and another post, I’ll share with you the framework, and hope it will help you consider how to position your farm, business or organization for growth.

Positioning statement framework

A positioning statement encompasses three aspects of your business or work:

  1. you – the products and services you offer and the benefits they provide your customers,
  2. your customer – who they are, why they think they want or need your product or service and the field of choices they consider in acquiring your product or service, and
  3. your competition – your main competitor among those choices and how you differ from them.

When completed, it reads like this: “For [target customer] who wants/needs [compelling reason to buy], [business/product] is a [frame of reference] that provides [key benefit]. Unlike [main competitor], [business/product] is [key differentiation].” Let’s see how this works through an example.

Case Study: Wellspring Growers

When I was finishing up business school I wrote a business plan for an indoor hydroponic farm. This was in the early days of urban agriculture, when there were few choices for chefs who wanted locally-grown produce. We knew from speaking with them that they wanted quality above all, and that they had a hard time getting that consistently from area farms. And as we spoke with more and more customers our positioning statement became more and more refined, and eventually read like this: For farm-to-table chefs in the Chicago area who demand the highest-quality fresh produce, Wellspring Growers supplies fresh salad greens and herbs which are harvested within a few hours of delivery for optimal taste and freshness. Unlike local-area farms, Wellspring Growers produce is available all year.

How did this process of defining our position in the market help us? Firstly, it taught us something about ourselves. We learned we had to deliver on quality – just offering local produce year-round wasn’t enough. This caused us to develop an R&D strategy to continuously improve taste and appearance. Secondly, it taught us a lot about our customers. We learned exactly what type of customers had the problem or pain points that we could uniquely address. This helped us focus our sales efforts. Thirdly, it taught us something about our competition and how we were different. There were a few places chefs could get high-quality local produce, but we would become the only supplier that could offer it year-round. This allowed us to prioritize our communication on our most unique benefit. Taken together, these aspects of the positioning statement allowed us to focus our business, sales efforts and communication on delivering the highest-value offerings, aimed at our best customers with targeted messages.

Strategy aside, there was also a very practical way this process helped us: it forced us to talk to our customers. The only way to craft a powerful positioning statement is to talk to enough customers to discover which segment(s) of the market are most likely to buy your product. You begin to learn more about the situation or problem that puts these customers in your market, how your competition in that market may fall short of meeting their needs, and therefore how you can uniquely serve this customer segment. By talking to lots of customers you also begin the process of forging relationships that will become the foundation of your sales plan, and growth.

Great. But I’m a farmer. What do I do?

During the week-long trainings one theme was consistent: that this framework gets real at the farmers market. Three farms are selling carrots that look exactly the same for exactly the same price. How does one stand apart? Great farm businesses understand this importance, and work intentionally to create uniqueness. It can be through their growing practices, their quality which proves over time, or their brand name and logo. Often it is their personality that makes the shopping experience resonant and enjoyable for their customer base. While “marketing” is not something many farmers enjoy, the advantage of vending at the farmers market is the accessibility to customers. Selling directly to your customers, it is much easier to learn what is important to them and to then position your products and messaging accordingly.

Getting started

Reading through the Wellspring case may make you think it’s easy to write a positioning statement. Well, it’s not! Even if you have talked to numerous customers and believe you have the insights and elements nailed, putting it together is not simple. It can take teams many hours of discussion and debate and you may still feel like it’s only 80% right. That’s OK. You can continue to refine it as you get market feedback. It is all worthwhile work, and can cause the team to solidify its understanding of aspects of the business, communication and competition that had not been analyzed rigorously. I encourage you to try it!

Recognizing how difficult it is, I’m covering in greater detail the components of the positioning statement in a separate post titled “Anatomy of a positioning statement.”

 Whatcom County Food System Plan

In 2021, the Whatcom County Food System Committee conducted a community food assessment that pointed to key opportunities to build a more robust and resilient regional food system. New Venture Advisors partnered with Whatcom County staff and the Food System Committee to draft a Whatcom County Food System Plan that builds upon these findings. This Plan focuses on five key goals for building a more equitable, sustainable, and resilient food system, and was informed by an inclusive community engagement process. The Food System Plan will provide the county with a policy roadmap that will strengthen the local food system for years to come. (2023)

 Whatcom Local Food Campus

The Whatcom Community Foundation invests in activities and organizations that improve the ability of people to help themselves, increase connections among people, and take cooperative approaches to community issues. WCF is exploring the development of a local food campus on a waterfront property that would become a multi-tenant site, anchored by a collaborative production kitchen benefitting food access, school system, and community organizations. The goal is strengthening Whatcom County’s local food system by promoting health equity, forging tangible strategic connections between food production organizations, and helping farmers connect with institutional markets. The facility will also feature an incubation kitchen, demonstration kitchen, event and classroom space, collaborative office and conference facilities, and housing.  New Venture Advisors developed the business case for this ambitious project and continues to support its development through engagement and operational development. (2023)