TOP LEFT: Backyard Farms’ brand advocate Mary Ann Esposito of the PBS series "Ciao Italia with Mary Ann Esposito," visits the operation. L-R: Director of Sales Duncan McSweeney, President Stuart Jablon; Esposito; Director of Marketing Jim Darroch TOP RIGHT: Chef Mary Ann Esposito of Ciao Italia
Photos courtesy of Backyard Farms
Chef Shannon Bard (far right) of the restaurants Zapoteca in Portland, Maine and Toroso in Kennebunk, Maine, used Backyard Farms tomatoes during a cooking demonstration on an episode of Good Day Maine in Portland.
Photo courtesy of Backyard Farms

Chances are, your brand needs more content in order to better connect with target customers. Generating good content with consistency can be one of the most challenging tasks you and your business face these days when it comes to executing your marketing strategy. Yet, customers nowadays expect authentic and stylish content, such as how-to videos or recipe blogs. So, how are you getting this important work accomplished?

Perhaps you’ve hired staff within your company to write relevant copy, develop recipes, take great photographs, create videos and keep all of the content disseminated across your social media platforms. If you’ve found that solution tough to achieve (OK, possibly downright impossible) then you may have hired an outside agency to give you a helping hand. You may have found in today’s marketplace, however, that you need to go a step further to make a brand connection with your target customers. That’s where brand advocates can come into play.

Backyard Farms’ chef partners are featured on the websites with links to their biographies, tomato-based recipes and more.
Screenshot taken from Backyard Farms' website

What, or rather who, exactly is a brand advocate? In the world of produce, a brand advocate is most likely going to be someone with public notoriety who actually uses your produce in their work: someone like a celebrity chef, restaurateur or food blogger. These types of brand advocates can help you make a relevant connection with the consumers who buy your produce by teaching them how to use your produce in simple and creative ways.

Who do you trust?

By partnering with a brand advocate and letting them help you tell your story, you can generate a lot of meaningful content for your brand. More importantly, a chef who has public notoriety, be it locally, regionally or nationally, will inspire confidence in your product. In other words, they help you generate content your customers will trust.

Let’s face it: Sometimes you just need someone outside of your company who is more believable than you to help sell your product. Not to say you’re not trustworthy, but it’s no secret that you’re biased (it’s your company, after all) and customers are suspicious of traditional advertising. If done right, endorsements by an outside influencer offer credibility that you can’t.

Recruiting

Hiring and partnering with a brand advocate requires a plan. I checked in with Jim Darroch, director of marketing at Backyard Farms, a hydroponic tomato grower in Madison, Maine, to see how they recruit and manage the celebrity chefs that help them drive brand recognition and trust.

When it comes to seeking chef partners, Backyard Farms wants those who not only use tomatoes in their cooking but are also well-known and respected in at least one of their main distribution areas. A good place to start looking is at relevant restaurants that are popular and have a good reputation in your desired location.

Darroch recommends asking your customers which cooking shows they watch or recipe websites they visit. Perhaps there’s a local chef who’s already running a popular YouTube channel or a blog with a healthy following. TV exposure is good too, so be sure to check out the chefs who may be hitting the local or regional morning shows or weekend events. If your budget is bigger, then go national.

You may not have the time or inclination to do this ground hunt yourself. If that’s the case, and you have some marketing money to spend, you can reach out to advertising or content agencies to help you find a good fit. “Cercone and Brown in Boston gets the credit for connecting us with Mary Ann Esposito and Shannon Bard,” Darroch says.

The right fit

After you find an individual who meets your criteria, you then have to earn their endorsement. Backyard Farms believes authentic buy-in is crucial to brand advocate success.

“Once we connect, we then meet the chefs in person so they can hear our story and taste our tomatoes,” Darroch says. “If they become as passionate about the quality of our fruit and the way we run our business as we are, we move forward with working on an agreement.” Brand advocates are essentially business partners in your marketing. You want to make sure they believe in you, so your customer believes in them.

The key is to find an influencer who has the personality you want and shares your brand values. Remember: They will be directly representing you and your product. Darroch expects his brand advocates to truly believe in his product and be able to explain in his/her own words why they want to associate with his company and product.

“If you don’t feel 100-percent confident in the chef’s ability to represent your brand or you’re remotely concerned about his/her speaking style, reputation or commitment level, keep looking,” he says.

Control the conversation

Once you recruit a good brand advocate, you then have to make sure you properly guide their messaging. It’s all fine and well to hire a well-known chef to help you sell your produce, but unless you provide them with the right “verbiage” with which to promote it, you may lose control over what they say and how they say it. And that could lead to some less-than-desirable results for your branding efforts.

Providing talking points and written instructions to partner chefs is a good place to start. Darroch also advises visiting with partner chefs on a regular basis. “I bring tomatoes to Mary Ann Esposito’s house about once a month and she always asks me how things are going at the greenhouse,” Darroch says.

Backyard Farms and its chef partners work together in a collaborative process to choose the recipes they create. “Mary Ann gives me a list and a description before she moves forward with development,” Darroch says. “She also never lets me leave hungry, which is one of the best perks of my job.”

The nitty gritty

How much content your brand advocate creates for or with you will depend on their availability, your needs and the overall budget. You should agree on specifics up front, such as how many custom recipes you’d like them to create for you, how many videos or photographs you expect them to provide (or will you shoot them in-house?), and other PR activities such as TV appearances or blog posts.

Be sure to think about all of your marketing distribution channels when planning what types of content your brand advocate will help you create. High-quality stylized photographs of food are a must these days for your website, Instagram feed, Pinterest and Facebook. Good-looking and easy-to-follow video how-to’s are vital content for your website and YouTube channel. Custom recipes using your product are good features for your blog and Twitter feed. All of the above helps populate your direct email and print materials.

How much?

How much you pay a brand advocate will obviously depend on the notoriety and availability of the person you recruit. The bigger their influence in the marketplace, the bigger their price tag. “Everything is negotiable,” Darroch says, and there is a bit of push and pull in the negotiating process. Some chefs Backyard Farms approaches are specific about what they are willing to do and how much they charge. Other times, the company will outline what they want and a chef will assign a price to deliver that content. “Like any relationship, there’s always give and take,” Darroch says. “We review our agreements every year to make sure we’re all satisfied.” Confirm that you know exactly what you’ll be getting for your investment and that all terms are clearly outlined in your contract.

Time crunch

Time is money and chefs are often extremely busy people. Darroch notes that reaching them in real time can be tough. If a partner chef is going to be a good brand advocate, then you need to make sure they have the resources to get the job done. Consider working with chefs who have a personal assistant, or who are represented by a PR firm, in order to make sure communication stays fluid and tasks are completed on time. “It’s not a deal breaker for Backyard Farms if they don’t have that kind of resource,” Darroch says. “But it may result in more follow-up on your end.”

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, marketing strategy, digital content creation, branding design, advertising and social media support for green industry companies. lesliehalleck.com