Interview with Larry Alsum
Branding Alsum Farms & Produce, Inc.
By Ruth Faivre, Managing Editor
Most grower operations become successful by thoroughly understanding the crops they grow and their requirements as well as agriculture in general.
They also establish sound fiscal and business operation practices; hiring, grooming and retaining good employees, knowing when and where to sell their crops and last, but not least, establish an image/identity or ‘brand’ for their company so that it stands out from the crowd.
Alsum Farms & Produce Inc. is a perfect example of all these factors falling into place like clockwork but like many companies, its current entity rose out of crisis.
In 1981, the original owner, Glen Alsum, of what was then Alsum Produce Inc., a potato and vegetable repacking operation selling to local grocers from a 4,000 square foot warehouse, died tragically in a plane crash.
His widow, Linda Alsum, realized she would need help to continue the operation so she approached Glen’s cousin, Larry Alsum, to leave the public accounting sector to assume the reins of Alsum Produce Inc.
While Larry had grown up on a family-owned dairy farm, he pursued a different career path upon graduation from college, becoming a CPA for Houghton, Taplick & Co, CPA’s in Madison.
Thankfully, Larry recognized the offer as a wonderful opportunity to structure an even bigger business than Alsum Produce Inc. currently was and agreed to come on board as a partner and General Manager.
Subsequently, Larry’s six years of auditing, accounting and tax experience helped shape this one company family business with 10 employees into three companies with over 250 employees and over 345,000 square feet of production, warehouse, maintenance, transportation and office facilities.
In 2010, Larry changed the name of Alsum Produce Inc. to Alsum Farms & Produce Inc. to reflect better the company’s long-term growth plans and commitment to locally grown produce.
The company continued its growth by expanding their fruit and vegetable offerings; developing innovative, new potato products, adopting sustainable growing practices and developing a ‘brand identity’ for their company while also helping to build awareness of Wisconsin potatoes.
Two generations later with Larry still at the helm as owner, President & CEO and company spokesperson, Alsum Farms & Produce Inc. and its subsidiary companies farm over 2,200 acres of potatoes in the lower Wisconsin River Valley; grow russets, reds, whites, golds, purples and fingerlings and distribute Wisconsin potatoes and onions nationally.
Alsum Farms & Produce Inc. also distributes a full line of 300 fruits and vegetables in the Midwest along with locally grown produce. Sister company, Alsum Transport and its fleet of over 30 tractors and 70 refrigerated trailers deliver highest quality produce to retail and foodservice customers, locally and across the nation.
However, the focus of this interview with Larry is not about the agricultural or sales components of this phenomenal growth.
Rather, it focuses on a factor less understood by most growers but one that Larry’s company has fully embraced, which is developing a ‘brand identity’, that will resonate with their company’s customers, ultimately making them want to do more business with Alsum Farms & Produce Inc.
Larry is not just the President & CEO of Alsum Farms & Produce, Inc., but also the company spokesperson, serving as the ‘face’ of the company in its outwards marketing efforts, particularly on promotional and packaging materials.
Coming from an accounting background, you most certainly understood quite well, the principles of sound business practices, particularly in the financial segments, but how much did you know about the building of a brand image and the advertising, marketing and public relations that it requires to establish a well-recognized brand when you first took over Alsum Produce, Inc.?
I probably did not understand how important it was in the very beginning, but as we grew the packing side of our operation and expanding into the farming operation, it became apparent that we needed to connect with our customers and ultimately, the consumer, and create an identity or as you refer “our brand.”
At what point did you decide you needed to craft a solid, unified identity through marketing, advertising and public relations for Alsum Farms & Produce Inc. and why did you consider this important to your bottom line?
As we grew the business, we decided that we wanted to work as direct with our customers as possible. We had a lot of great customers but we did not always understand why they bought from Alsum versus our competitors. As we observed the consolidation in the produce industry, we knew that we had to invest in market research to understand our customers and the industry better.
Did you handle your branding efforts yourself, hire outside experts or fashion your own, in-house team to develop a marketing/branding campaign as well as determine your target markets?
We worked with a marketing agency to develop our brand by interviewing customers and gathering qualitative research that established Alsum Farms & Produce’s brand identity, which includes our logo, tagline, merchandising materials and key messages.
Today, we work with outside marketing partners and also manage the majority of our marketing, communications and public relations in-house.
While developing your branding, did you speak with your target market customers to discover their perceptions of the value of your product, your competitor’s products and what factors drove them to they buy from you or your competitors? If so, how did you use this knowledge in designing your marketing/branding plans?
Yes, we interviewed our customers to gain insights and utilized the feedback to develop our brand position, brand strategy, point of differentiation, value proposition as well as develop our brand elements, which included our logo, color palette and overall look and feel of our collateral and packaging materials. It is important to have a consistent look and feel across all marketing communications materials to build brand awareness in the marketplace.
A company logo is always more effective when it includes not just the company name but also an emblem of some kind and a tagline. Whatever you use, a rule of thumb is that your logo should look good on a baseball cap. Your logo/emblem is very distinctive. How hard was it to develop your logo, emblem and tagline and would you recommend having a professional graphic artist involved?
Having a distinct logo that reflects ones organization is important to the overall brand. I would recommend having an outside agency help in guiding the branding process; particularly with developing a logo and tagline, that reflects your company’s values.
Recently, Alsum Farms & Produce Inc. Fast & Fresh! 12 oz. Microwave-Ready Potatoes with Olive oil and Seasoning product line was named a finalist in the PMA Impact Award Excellence in Packaging. How important do you consider entering such competitions to your overall branding efforts and would you encourage others to compete in such contests and why?
Introducing new and innovative potato products to the market place is always exciting. We value the opportunity to help elevate the fresh market potato category and submit entries in industry contests to raise awareness of ready-to-serve healthy potato offering to meet the growing trends for fresh foods fast.
You have a very active Facebook page. How important do you think social media is towards your marketing efforts and would you recommend that growers participate as well as what drawbacks do you encounter in social media?
Social media is a part of our marketing mix. Like anything, continuously monitoring and engaging fans is a must to provide relevant news and helpful information that fans might find of interest.
We find our fans like to see posts of planting and harvesting at our farm and captive potato recipe ideas for easy meal solutions.
If you have personnel on staff to help monitor and engage fans, I would recommend growers to have a page and be on social media to be a part of the conversation. It is best to start with one or two social media platforms and build from there.
How have your branding efforts affected how your customers, employees and the communities you serve, view you and your company?
The response from customers has been positive. The discovery research that was conducted by our marketing firm revealed that the Alsum name was recognized as a leader and trustworthy supplier in the produce industry.
We had originally developed the “Windmill” brand and we thought that was our brand. However, the customer research revealed that the Alsum name was much more recognized than our Windmill brand.
It is difficult for a company our size to market both our name and our brand so the decision was made to refocus and make our name and brand the same.
The response from our customers and the consumers has been excellent. There is a strong desire by the consumer to know who grows the food they eat and we have integrated this strategy into our brand.
Part of your branding emphasizes your involvement in the Healthy Grown program and sustainable farming efforts. How do you feel this involvement has benefited your company and would you recommend it to other operations like yours?
We have highlighted the Healthy Grown Program and our commitment to sustainable farming in our marketing messages to customers.
We have also utilized the Healthy Grown promotional and merchandising materials to help educate Wisconsin consumers and elevate sales at retail.
I would recommend to other growers to be a part of Healthy Grown Program.
What role do you believe an agri-business should play in community and industry events and how important do you perceive that role in fostering relations within those groups?
It is important to be a voice for the Wisconsin potato growers.
I enjoy educating industry and community leaders about Wisconsin Potatoes by giving tours of the packing shed and serving on leadership boards representing our industry. As a company, we also donate to local schools, churches and charities for fund raising projects and participate in local parades and community events.
What advice would you give to growers who are just now starting to think in terms of how to brand their companies?
Keep an open mind. Engage trusted, outside experts to help guide you through the branding process and have in-house staff in place that can help nurture and evolve the brand.