How Organic Valley Built a Green Brand with Guerrilla Marketing

CROPP, now the largest cooperative for organic farmers in the United States, planted its stakes 24 years ago during an agriculture recession that drove thousands of family farms into bankruptcy.

The group formed with one objective: "We set out to keep farmers on the land farming," said Theresa Marquez, CROPP's chief mission officer, at the 2012 GreenBiz Forum. The annual forum series opened today for a one-day event in Minneapolis and moves to New York on January 24 and San Francisco on January 30.

Today, the producer of the Organic Valley and Organic Prairie brands is a co-op of almost 1,700 farmers. Not only does the co-op follow a far different business model and marketing strategy than rivals, it pays the most to its farmers of any other organic co-op in the country. It also projects growth of 26.5 percent this year which would bring the business to about $850 million-- an outlook that sets it apart from other in the business of organic agriculture.

"Joel, I want you to know we are swimming, we are not treading water like the rest of the organic companies," said Marquez, referring to the sustainability indicators in the 2012 State of Green Business Report, which GreenBiz Executive Editor Joel Makower and the GreenBiz Group published this week.

The CROPP Cooperative has grown from a $5 million business in 1995, when Marquez joined the operation, to about $719 million. That success is not only the result of how CROPP does business, it owes much to the way CROPP tells its business story, she said.

Based in Wisconsin, the nation's dairy capital, CROPP entered a long-established industry with products and a business model that were considered novelties at the time. Non-traditional products and business models call for an equally non-traditional marketing strategy: CROPP uses guerrilla marketing, which traces its name and tactics to guerrilla warfare.

Guerrilla marketing capitalizes on non-traditional means to engage an audience, taps into current local and regional trends, and uses the value of word-of-mouth and peer influence to push messages. The practice is characterized by imaginative and constant interaction on various platforms in campaigns that are high energy, but low budget in terms of advertising -- qualities that Marquez confirmed when she outlined how CROPP uses guerrilla marketing during a "One Great Idea" presentation at the GreenBiz Forum.

In her talk, Marquez highlighted the importance of:

Sticking to the Mission

"We're a guerrilla marketing business. We're public relations-based, not advertising-based," Marquez said, noting that a key competitor has outspent the co-op by about 18 to 1 for advertising for years.

"We always say there's the turtle and the hare, and we're the turtle," she said. "I have wonderful MBA marketing people that I work with and sometimes they say, 'We should be No. 1.' And I say, 'No, our mission is to keep farmers on the land farming and to revitalize our community. We need to stay focused on that. If it happens that we're No. 2 or No. 3, that doesn't matter. That's not our business.'  Being a sustainable and authentic marketing company really has to do with making sure that you stick with the mission -- and be very clear about it."

While it might not have a large presence in advertising, the co-op is no slouch when it comes to public relations. "We get over a billion impressions in the PR world," said Marquez. "Everyday we're in some paper in the United States."