There are two basic ways by which nutritional supplements are marketed worldwide. By “nutritional supplement” here, we will refer to everything but complete feed; such product requires a different approach. A nutritional supplement is what a farmer buys to combine with home-grown corn grain, or an additive a feed or animal producer buys to combine with myriad other ingredients to create a complete feed or a further nutritional supplement, and so on.
Successful marketeers combine the best of both worlds of marketing, either in a legitimate strategy or in a flawed stratagem. It is up to us to our customers to work with trustworthy and knowledgeable people, but hard and fast earning in this business usually impedes such efforts.
Let us examine these two methods.
From the top down
This implies that a salesperson and/or technical person, ideally both, visit a customer who regularly buys or wants to buy a nutritional supplement. Here, the focus is on problem solution; that high feed cost is always a problem should not be discounted, but it is rarely the most pressing in such visits. Once the problem is identified, usually by a brief discussion where the potential customer presents his or her issue, then the sales field team offers a quick solution based on the available products offered by their respective nutrition company. Here, there is no attempt made to analyze the problem at hand, at least beyond the scope of understanding whether the proffered solution (product) can resolve the issue. And this is the very best of the cases, especially when an experienced (and educated) technical person is present. Very rarely, if ever, any attempt is made to actually visit animal and feed-mixing facilities. In other words, the situation is taken at face value and a patch is offered, usually on a trial grace period.
For example, an animal producer complains that since switching from one to another ingredient, animals started scouring. Most companies have products that attempt to control gut microbiota, one of them being old-fashioned antibiotics, and their modern replacements (usually blends of more exotic substances). Without much further thought, such product is offered to be tested and, if it works, a happy customer is made. If not, some other factor is blamed, but the image of the company is tarnished. The world remains a small village and, without understanding the issue and its failure, it is easy to blame either party for not doing their job properly, whereas the real cause was a mismatch of problem with solution. But such an approach offers the advantage that it does not upset the initial decision to switch ingredients (or anything else in the nutrition program that has been put together after many years of discussions with myriad consultants, either paid up front or from the back door through product sales). The negative is that if such proffered product indeed works, very few will investigate whether such expense is worth using it against reverting their original decision that caused the new problem. And, as it most often happens, once such product enters a feed formula, without really understanding why it was successful, it remains there indefinitely. Of course, such over-dramatization of the situation only succeeds in highlighting the extreme positive and negative points; intermediate solutions exist.
From the bottom up
This is the most difficult method because it requires a level of trust between customer and nutrition supplier that very few enjoy, from either side of the fence. In most cases, customers are intuitively suspicious, and it takes only one nutrition supplier to start the process of destroying the image of the whole industry. The same is true for animal producers and their clients, the consumers. There is another great difficulty in following this method: The person who assesses the problem needs to be highly experienced, educated and even diplomatic so as not to offend existing relationships.
If we were to follow the example above, the technical person (a nutritionist with Ph.D., preferably) would examine the nature of the ingredient change and determine if and what can resolve this issue. Say the change was soy protein concentrate (limited allergenic reaction by young naïve animals) to soybean meal (maximum allergenic potential). Here, an honest person would flatly refuse to intervene, saying the problem cannot be resolved by additives. The attempt to reduce feed cost by using a less refined protein source has caused a normal and expected negative reaction, and diarrhea is the payback. In reality, the nutritionist would attempt to explain the situation and offer an intermediate solution that involves probably no products sold by the company, but one that helps the customer understand how to properly feed such animals. Being a good teacher – able to explain and transfer technology – is another trait required in this method of marketing. Here, perhaps the example was an unfortunate one, because it did not involve any sales, but this is not always the case. Even in such no-immediate-sale case, the level of trust gained can lead to long-term business relationships that can prove mutually beneficial to both parties.
A real life experience
I will bring up here the first customer I was taken to visit in Iowa, by Wil (a salesman of high caliber). The first thing I did was to reduce the amount of each of our products sold. Not only did Wil became furious (as this was our most important customer), but even the customer was suspicious. Four years later, by the time I left the company, this customer accounted for one-third of our business, and I had become the “personal nutritionist” of Wil, who had become a stellar salesman within the company. We still laugh at how this progressed, but I lament that such experiences have been rare since then. As it happens, the from-the top-down method remains the one by which 90 percent of nutritional products are sold worldwide (my article, my biased estimate.). It takes more of everything to follow the from-the-bottom-up method, and this is why most don’t.
I have always followed the latter method exclusively, often to the point of often being misunderstood. I do this not only because I can, but also because this is how I enjoy being in this industry. I may have few but loyal customers, and above all I do my job the way my professors and ancestors (all traders and farmers) taught me: taking into account first the success of my customer – simultaneously the animal and its producer. In my mind, these two are one and the same success unit.