Food producers who expect Australians to buy local product rather than cheaper imports are relying on one of the “laziest marketing ploys” in the trade.
Agribusiness Australia’s chief executive officer, Tim Burrow, says “buy local” slogans might sound good to many consumers, tugging at their patriotic sensibilities, however they do not necessarily give the customer a good deal.
Customer loyalty will wear thin in the longer term unless farmers and the food industry are realistic about facing cost efficient competition from overseas (or elsewhere in Australia) and acknowledge new consumer expectations.
“Telling people all they need to do is buy local is not enough to get them to actually buy local,” said Mr Burrow, who recently took up his current role.
He has spent 30 years with farm sector companies and advocacy bodies, including animal health business Elanco, Emerald Grain and Grain Producers South Australia.
“We need to be pragmatic about what we can offer, not idealistic or romantic.”
Trade happened because it made sense, he said.
Today’s consumers mostly had little connection with the farmer, limited understanding of the expense involved or farmers’ dedication to the task of growing our food.
They “see the food, not the farmer” and they tended to regard food production as outside their control and no longer a romantic story.
This meant Australians were increasingly buying products with less relationship to Australian farms or food manufacturing industries.
About $17 billion worth of agricultural products were imported last year to meet the demands of food processors, supermarket shoppers or restaurant diners who wanted something different to what Australia delivered, or something more competitively priced.
Those food imports were equivalent to about a third of the value of Australia’s total farm exports.
“If we want people to buy our local produce, we’ve got to do a lot more than say this has been produced in Australia, or grown in a certain region or state or on a particular local farm,” Mr Burrow said.
He believed buying local would become less relevant to the agribusiness sector as it focused on being more sophisticated, using more data and efficient technology to do everything from growing prawn and tomatoes in the arid inland to sending live cattle exports to Asia from Toowoomba airport.
“Selling product on the basis of where it comes from is the laziest form of marketing I know of,” he told the recent Agribusiness Outlook conference in Sydney.
The “buy local” message was invariably used to promote a fear of products with overseas origins.
The rationale behind the slogan was also “greedy”, assuming that local producers did not need to focus on being globally competitive while ever they could expect Australian and export customers to consistently buy their products.
“It’s a bit of a problem to assume that just being us is enough to encourage customers from other countries flock to buy from us,” Mr Burrow said.
He said food producers should also be careful not to deliver backhanded put downs to our Asian trading partners by suggesting they needed our food as they inhabited “a less beautiful, less productive and more risky part of the world than we live in”.
The agribusiness sector - which covered a diverse spread of about 1.4 million people in food and fibre production, retailing, timber and other areas - must acknowledge the disconnect between consumers and food and clothing product producers was getting bigger.
Despite farmers generally rating highly in public opinion polls as trusted professionals, the community was increasingly likely to see agrifood industries as “fair game to bash up”.
This challenge had to be addressed logically and with efficient leadership and individuals who took responsibility for “shouting about the good times and industry achievements” rather than expecting the community to prop up production inefficiencies and socialise farming’s losses.
“Australian might be an island, but we need to think more like a continent and trade with the world competitively, taking more calculated risks and investing consistently.”