Exploring a distribution channel for genetically modified corn hybrids in South Africa

Title: Exploring a distribution channel for genetically modified corn hybrids in South Africa

Mouton, Nelda; Wessels, A.

Ensovoort, volume 43 (2022), number 7: 2

Abstract

The distribution of genetically modified (GM) corn hybrids is a key element of the marketing mix for seed companies and a crucial element toward ensuring that the demand and requirements of farmer customers are met. Distribution channels serve as a direct or indirect pathway to allow farmers access to such GM corn hybrids. This qualitative study employed an interpretivist phenomenological approach to identify the most effective distribution channel for GM corn seed in South Africa’s irrigation market segment. Other contributing factors that influence customer preference and the role that brand loyalty plays in the choice of GM seed distribution were also explored. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with seven irrigation corn farmers located in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa. Findings indicate that farmers in the geographically sampled area have no specific preference for either a direct or indirect distribution channel, but that they rather prefer the shortest route to market. Recommendations include the implementation of an alternative distribution-channel strategy that will allow seed companies to not only focus on the human interaction and the existing relationship but also provide technologically advanced product support that could further promote a sense of trust and brand loyalty.

Keywords: distribution channel, brand loyalty, customer preference, genetically modified corn hybrids

Introduction

Global agricultural production has seen a drastic increase in genetically modified (GM) crops planted, not only in the United States of America (USA) but also in many other global markets, including South Africa. Growing evidence is surfacing that increasing yields and the reduced production costs linked to GM crops will improve productivity that will help feed the rapid growth in consumption (Wilson & Dahl, 2010:1). Several factors, including the preferred distribution channels for GM corn seed, impact the way that GM technology reaches farmers and subsequently improves their productivity.

Background

The expansion of GM crops is mainly driven by climate change and the emergence of new pests and diseases (ISAAA, 2018:2). South Africa’s GM adoption rate upped from 93% in 2017 to 96% in 2018, maintaining the country’s ranking among the top-10 GM producing countries globally over the last 20 years (ABI, 2019).

The distribution of GM corn seed is a key marketing concern for seed companies and is critical to meeting farmer customers’ demands and requirements. Distribution channels are therefore a pivotal contributor to the “place” element of the four “P’s” (product, price, place, and promotion) associated with the marketing mix and enable seed companies to obtain a competitive edge (Neves et al., 2001:518).

For direct distribution channels, Nordin (2005:579) posits that seed companies employ sales teams enabling them to support their farmer customers directly from regional supply points, ensuring high technical support and service levels while maintaining product quality. However, in a multi-level distribution strategy, seed companies supply a network of retail outlets. In this system, seed companies rely on agricultural cooperatives1, commissioned agents, or distributors to connect with the farmer and provide sales and technical support (Mumby, 1994:48).

Problem statement

Given the choice of existing direct or multi-level (indirect) distribution channels, seed companies are faced with the limitation of accurately determining which distribution channel their farmer customers prefer and accordingly align their marketing strategies (Rutsaert & Donovan, 2020:40). These researchers subsequently called for further research that explores farmers’ perspectives, the process of seed selection, and the role of distribution channels in farmers’ purchasing decisions. An increased understanding is thus required of the determinants that influence the interactions between seed companies, the seed distribution channel and farmers. This corroborates the findings of Paksoy et al. (2012:2822), who state that maintaining a competitive advantage is one of the most prominent problems in selecting a distribution channel. The introduction of GM seed and the associated technical expertise has also necessitated a critical review of current practices to identify the most effective distribution channel for these high technology seed offerings.

Research objectives

This article will identify the most effective distribution channel for GM corn seed in South Africa’s irrigation market segment. As secondary research objectives, contributing factors that influence customer preference towards a specific GM seed distribution channel will also be explored. In addition, the role that brand loyalty plays in the choice of GM seed distribution will also be investigated.

Importance of the study

The ability to identify the most effective distribution channel for GM seeds means that seed companies can adjust their marketing strategy to best suit farming customer needs. In the selection of the farmer-customer preferred distribution channel, farmers would be better served to unlock the value of novel GM corn seed that would enhance farming productivity and ultimately profitability. Through an improved understanding of the value that brand loyalty and customer preference bring in the choice of distribution channels, seed companies can gain clarity on whether to plan for the appointment of direct sales teams or the adjustment of existing agent/dealer incentives and commission structures to drive sales to the final farmer customer through an indirect distribution channel.

Delimitations

Due to the limited scope of this study, only certain factors contributing to farmer-customer choice of distribution channels were explored. In addition, the participants in this study were limited to a certain segmentation of farmer customers. Participants in this study were selected farmers in the irrigation segment of South Africa’s corn production belt of the Northern Cape province. Corn farmers in the rest of the country’s production areas were excluded from this study. Another delimiting factor for participants to qualify for inclusion was the total percentage of corn production as part of their farming operation.

Ethical considerations

The ethical considerations of this study ranged from the unit of analysis’ anonymity to the option for participants not to answer questions so chosen. Further ethical considerations included interviews that were conducted in the comfort of the participants’ homes or offices with prior arrangement and without the invasion of privacy.

Research methodology

This qualitative study was conducted to obtain insight into the most effective distribution channel for GM corn hybrids in South Africa. The research was based on interpretivism as a paradigm and the generation of knowledge rather than the testing of pre-defined theories at the onset. Phenomenology was employed as the study’s approach as it seeks to disclose and explain the phenomena of behavior, and in the case of this study, the choices regarding distribution channels by GM corn farmers. Bryman et al. (2018:14) state that interpretivists work from the principle that the subject matter of the social sciences (people and their institutions) differs fundamentally from the natural sciences. In this study, interpretivism was used to understand the motives that irrigation corn farmers use in their distribution channel choice for the purchase of their GM seed. The researcher used semi-structured interviews to gather qualitative data and worked towards data saturation. A cross-sectional study was conducted. Data was gathered from a specific population of irrigation corn farmers in a predefined geographical area in South Africa. The unit of analysis consisted of irrigation corn farmers, who were primarily located in the Northern Cape province of South Africa. These farmers produce corn as part of a rotation system with wheat. The irrigation farmers of the study population in this specific site, are well versed in the latest GM seed technologies available in corn production.

Table 1: Details of the particulars of the research participants

Participant

Area

Age

Education

Participant 1

Prieska

50

Master’s degree

Participant 2

Prieska

33

Master’s degree

Participant 3

Douglas

38

Master’s degree

Participant 4

Jacobsdal

47

Agricultural Diploma

Participant 5

Hopetown

48

Bachelor’s degree

Participant 6

Douglas

41

Agricultural Diploma

Participant 7

Douglas

55

Agricultural Diploma

Findings

Table 2: Executive summary of findings (Conceptualised by Author, 2021)

Theme

Sub-theme

Key findings

Distribution channel preference

Current preference

Farmers prefer the shortest route to market.

Agricultural cooperatives have limited value.

No clear distinction between commissioned agents and salaried representatives at farmer level.

The role of marketing

Demonstrations and on-farm presence are highly valued.

Innovative (digital) marketing strategies are required as farmers become more technology-driven.

Word-of-mouth is still a key marketing platform.

Relationships

Channel characteristics

Personal relationships and regular on-farm visits build trust as a key determinant in choice of distribution channel.

Product support

Prompt and responsible handling of product complaints is key.

Provide expert technical support throughout the season (perceived to be lacking from the agricultural cooperatives).

Expectations

Yield

The chosen distribution channel should constantly strive towards increasing yield as a product attribute.

Technology/genetic progress

Seed companies who deliver new technologies through their distribution channels will win new customers and retain current customers.

Price

Not a determinant factor as long as new products are superior to their predecessors.

Loyalty

Distribution channel (person) loyalty

Farmers who highly value personal relationships and trust favor loyalty towards the person representing the distribution channel.

Product/company loyalty

Loyalty to a competitive company product often outweighs loyalty towards the person selling it.

Farmers might, however, switch companies if new rival products outperform current offerings.

THEME 1: Distribution channel preference

The summated findings of this first theme indicate very strongly that participants in this study see limited value in purchasing from agricultural cooperatives and prefer the shortest route to market in seed distribution. In addition, these farmers value brand equity. Thus, seed companies should have a strong presence in on-farm research and demonstration activities. The notion that word-of-mouth marketing has more value than printed media campaigns also holds. The role of on-farm field trials that showcase new products is still one of the best ways to influence farmers’ choice of a distribution channel. These on-farm field trials also indicate a company’s willingness to do market development, and in turn, the word-of-mouth advertising that is generated supports future sales activities. An on-farm presence together with innovative marketing approaches generates the antecedents for customer relationship building.

THEME 2: Relationships

The importance of relationships and certain personal characteristics need to be accentuated. Seed companies need to commit to, through their distribution channel, conducting regular on-farm visits and subsequently build such required personal relationships by understanding their customers’ individual and product needs. Another pre-requisite of successful partnerships between the participants in this study and their preferred distribution channel is continuous product support throughout the season. The technology associated with GM corn hybrids require of seed companies to ensure adequate technical and product support at farm level. The successful relationship building and product support cultivate trust. This trust component is one of the determining factors in farmers’ choice of their distribution channel.

THEME 3: Expectations

The findings of this theme suggest that farmers might also have explicit expectations that shape their purchasing decisions. These key drivers include product attributes such as yield, technology and price, which eventually influence the choice of a distribution channel.

THEME 4: Loyalty

The theme focusing on loyalty yielded very contradicting results. Although some farmers place a very high premium on the person that represents the seed company’s distribution channel, they will not necessarily switch companies if that agent or representative moves to a different company. Other farmers indicated a clear loyalty towards a product irrespective of the distribution channel (person) or company linked to that specific product. Three types of loyalty were identified and explored in this theme, namely loyalty towards a person, loyalty towards a company, and loyalty towards a specific product.

Discussion

For the first theme of distribution-channel preference, the findings indicated that farmers would prefer the shortest route to market in purchasing their GM corn hybrids and obtain the benefits of trade discounts. However, as indicated by Agribenchmark (2021) and corroborated by several of the participants, this benefit of direct purchases is outweighed by the human element associated with purchasing from a distribution-channel partner. The findings of this article support the notion that long-standing relationships will trump the trade discount benefit of direct purchases from a seed company without technical support and a human interface.

Advertising as a marketing activity also drives brand loyalty and creates a top-of-mind perception with customers when it comes to brand image. Research by Beck and Rygl (2015:174) on the effect of a distribution channel on a company’s marketing activities is also closely linked to the findings. It could be deduced that control of the distribution channel through various marketing activities can be achieved, as each level in a distribution channel will target a different customer segment. The ability of a seed company to deliver “pull”-type marketing activities will allow the seed company greater operational control of the segmented customer profile.

Kotler (1997:65) mentions that segmentation of customers allows seed companies the opportunity to deliver the right marketing mix and develop marketing strategies that fit them accordingly. This was corroborated by the sub-theme focusing on the role of marketing, which identified on-farm demonstrations and digital marketing platforms as a key requirement for this specific irrigated GM corn farmer segment. An important learning from the findings was the role of exclusivity in the distribution channel and the effect that exclusivity has on marketing activities such as price and promotional activities.

From a marketing perspective, an interesting comparison emerged from the similarities between Argentinean and South African seed companies, i.e. both actively invest in brand development to gain a competitive advantage.

The work of Rutsaert and Donovan (2020:500) was echoed almost unanimously by the participants when focusing on both the sub-theme of price and the theme of discussing expectations. This correlation highlights the fact that the price of seed is perceived as a direct indication of the quality of the seed. As indicated in the findings on price, farmer customers would be willing to pay higher seed prices for new GM corn hybrids that will continuously outperform their predecessors. In essence, price was not a determining factor in the choice of a distribution channel. This finding regarding price was also linked to the work by Harbor and Roucan-Kane (2008:24), who state that farmers are interested in non-price-related attributes such as yield and technical support.

In addition, two more interesting findings relating to price emerged from the literature review. Firstly, from Beck and Rygl (2015:174), who argue that the type of distribution channel used will influence the pricing strategy. This was indeed the case for seed companies as they use different pricing strategies for each distribution channel strategy. A practical example was shared by Participant 1, who clearly expressed his interest in obtaining the price discount awarded by seed companies to agricultural cooperatives.

A study by Feeney and Berardi (2013:33), classified Argentinean farmers’ loyalty into four segments, namely performance, price, balance and convenience (cf. 2.6). Feeney and Berardi (2013:33) conceptualized performance buyers as being focused on the productivity of their seed purchased and not on cost, which directly impacts their definition of loyalty. This was mirrored very closely by the participants, who can also be classified as performance buyers. However, Participant 4 highlighted that the status of being a performance buyer is closely linked to context and that certain irrigated fields that have limited yield potential would not justify expensive GM hybrids. This classifies him as a price buyer, but for that specific field only. The author postulates that this pricing choice is not driven by the high cost of GM corn hybrids in general, but that it is merely a decision that will align the yield potential of that specific field to a more conservatively priced GM hybrid.

Research done by Weitz and Jap (1995:308) links to the sub-theme of product support and accentuates that products by the distribution channel add more value than traditional marketing actions. Comi (2019:172) further supports the notion that farmers are loyal to the technical expertise of their dealers. Several participants clearly stated their continuous need for technical support throughout the season as well as the subsequent prompt handling of possible seed complaints. Feeney and Berardi (2013:33) also eluded to the value of product support for performance buyers, in this way highlighting the similar needs of both Argentinean farmers and their South African counterparts focused on in this study.

Trust was another prerequisite for establishing behavioral loyalty. Farmer customers who are loyal to the brand are willing to pay more for it and will also share their experiences. This finding links with the work by Chaudhuri and Holbrook (2001:82).

Exploring the loyalty of farmer customers towards their preferred distribution channel yielded some interesting and unexpected findings, specifically relating to distribution channel control. Research by Wen (2011:64) states that, in the past, seed companies were the controlling entity in a distribution channel, but as of late, that control has swayed towards the distribution channel because they control the relationship with the farmer customer. This control relationship with the farmer customer encapsulates customer loyalty. Therefore, distribution channels, especially independent commissioned agents, have become the dominant force and exert more force than the seed company. However, as the findings indicate, farmer customers require a continuous flow of new GM corn hybrids to remain competitive, and the ownership of these products allows seed companies the ability to regain distribution channel control and, ultimately, customer loyalty.

Research by Comi (2019:172) also corroborated this finding that although farmers value the technical expertise of their dealers, they would maintain their brand of choice in the event of their dealers switching brands. The findings also support the outcome reached by Comi (2019:172) that farmers will remain brand loyal as long as they are supplied with (GM corn hybrid) seed offering ever-increasing yield levels. Hollebeek (2011:797) showcased the customer engagement/loyalty matrix, indicating four distinct customer groups, namely apathists, activists, exits, and variety seekers (cf. 2.10.2). Applying the matrix to the findings indicates that the sampled area, irrigation corn farmers, consists of variety seekers, as they are highly engaged in the brand, but also that they might defer from the customer base if new superior GM corn hybrids are available in future.

Recommendations

Several practical recommendations are suggested to the GM corn seed industry at large to ensure that both farmers and seed companies are beneficiaries.

As farmer customers in the sampled area have no clear preference for a distribution-channel structure, the author proposes the establishment of a possible third option of a direct-distribution channel structure specifically through key account managers. Although this was not considered as a possible distribution channel during the conceptualization, the findings clearly indicate the value of exploring this alternative distribution-channel model. Such key account managers could serve as intermediaries for a B2B distribution-channel strategy linking large irrigation farmers to seed companies (thereby considering both entities as legitimate businesses). It is crucial to accentuate the differences between the above-mentioned salaried representatives and this new concept of key account managers. Key account managers would have a greater commercial mandate to negotiate trade discounts and payment terms with large farming entities. Key account managers also add one key value proposition to a seed company in comparison to commissioned agents, i.e. that of exclusivity. Distribution-channel exclusivity will imply single product focus for the person representing the distribution channel.

The finding that no clear distribution-channel preference was evident allows for distribution-channel control benefits through the key account manager, which is discussed in the next two recommendations. Given the consolidation of farming operations in the sampled area, fewer but larger farming operations will ultimately prevail (larger farms, fewer farmers). This offers seed companies the opportunity to engage directly with these larger farming business entities through the above-mentioned key account managers in a B2B distribution-channel approach. The negotiation of trade discounts directly with these key accounts could allow for the benefits of larger volume purchases to be passed on directly to these larger and consolidated farmer customers as opposed to having to pay it as commission to a non-company-affiliated commissioned agent.

Seed companies often lack distribution-channel control if commissioned agents control valuable market information and resources such as customer purchasing decision drivers. With a direct distribution channel approach, seed companies would have the ability to regain critical market information flow. This approach would allow unrestricted access and greater transparency toward market and customer demand information. A B2B distribution channel approach could swing distribution channel control back in favor of the seed company. Distribution channel control through key account managers would allow seed companies one additional benefit – to determine the pricing strategy as compared to retailers who set different price points as intermediaries.

The findings further confirm that new and technologically advanced products offer superior yield levels leading to improved brand loyalty. This technological edge is unattainable by retailers or agricultural cooperatives and hence a limitation in their control of a distribution channel. The demand drive created by new products will also compel seed companies to increase investment in research and development. This role of innovative new products as a distribution-channel strategy will therefore give a seed company a competitive advantage. Seed companies need to deliver a consistent flow of high-yielding GM corn hybrids that continuously increases brand performance (yield) for farmer customers to maintain their loyalty towards their preferred seed company.

Agricultural cooperatives have limited value as a distribution channel for GM corn hybrids in the sampled area. It is therefore recommended that key account managers who deal directly with larger farming entities only utilize agricultural cooperatives as a means to finance seed purchases where needed. Care should however be taken not to completely eliminate this platform, as several smaller farming entities in areas outside the sampled area still purchase from agricultural cooperatives. However, in the geographical area of the participants interviewed, the actual placement of seed-company inventory at the premises of an agricultural cooperative could be terminated, as it has limited value as a distribution-channel platform. In the proposed B2B-driven distribution channel, a mutually agreed-upon financing-based commission structure for the purchasing of large volumes could be negotiated with agricultural cooperatives.

Marketing activities should focus on showcasing on-farm product performance through demonstration sites and the hosting of smaller but focused field days at these demonstration sites. These simple yet effective pull-type marketing activities would also allow the seed company additional control over the distribution channel as opposed to a push-type marketing strategy. Farmer customers will purchase directly from the key account manager if the seed company (and not a commissioned agent) influences the farmer’s purchasing decision. Pull-type marketing efforts should aim to deliver the product’s brand value (yield) through the proposed direct distribution channel to the farming customer.

In addition to these on-farm pull-type marketing activities, the role of technology in the digitalization of marketing activities also has several commercial benefits, especially for younger-generation farmer customers. As the role of printed media in marketing is gradually making way for digital-marketing platforms, a digital focus in marketing should be pursued by seed companies. Several digital platforms, including social media, could be utilized to share short one-minute videos on product performance or technical aspects relating to new product releases. These digital-marketing infomercials could drive brand loyalty that in turn supports distribution channel preference.

A final recommendation, based on the findings related to product loyalty, highlights the opportunity for licensing competitive GM corn hybrids to opposition companies in an effort to create an additional distribution channel. Given the findings which indicate that farmers will switch between seed companies if new GM corn hybrids outperform previous versions, the opportunity to out-license competitive products could allow additional distribution channels for proprietary seed companies. Allowing the licensee the opportunity to market competitive licensed GM corn hybrids under their own brand could allow the licensee the opportunity to serve as a fully-fledged and independent distribution channel for the proprietary seed company without competing with the proprietary seed company’s own direct key-account approach.

In an effort to incorporate the findings and recommendations of this article, a proposed alternative distribution channel structure is suggested in Figure 1.

Conclusion

The rudimentary lesson was that people buy from people. The person representing the distribution channel, whether employed by the seed company or a commissioned agent, is irrelevant to the farming customer in the sampled area. However, the human interaction and the connection that the person representing the distribution channel has with the farming customer is of vital importance. Despite changes brought about by the digitalization of distribution and the threat that online distribution has posed to traditional brick-and-mortar distribution channels, the agricultural industry still values on-farm and in-person presence.

Given the expanding value brought about by GM corn hybrids to South Africa’s irrigated corn seed market, the human element supporting this technology will be a key contributor to unlocking the technology’s full value while ensuring that South African farmers maintain global relevance.

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Endnote

1 In Afrikaans referred to as Landbou Koöperasies.