Marketing Agriculture

Crops, Brands, and Foods in Agriculture Marketing

Analyzing the Food Ecosystem: Crops, Brands, and Foods in Agriculture Marketing

In this week’s episode of the Endless Coffee Cup podcast, we delve deep into the world of agriculture marketing.

Join us as we explore the complexities of the food industry, from understanding the cost of growing food to the importance of supporting local farmers markets. Our guest, Ali Cox of Noble West, discusses the intricate relationship between brands and retailers in the food ecosystem.

Food is a Universal Need

We explore how the types of crops, brands, and foods play a crucial role in shaping the way we analyze and appreciate the food we consume. One significant aspect is the demand and supply chain in the fast food industry, but here is also a lack of transparency and information about the quality of food in these chains, leaving consumers wanting more. Ali cites In-N-Out Burger as an example for  transparency, urging consumers to demand more information about the sourcing and supply chain of fast food.

We tackle the issue of food loss and waste in large-scale production. Ali shares her insights into working with optical sorters and packing house manufacturers to address this problem, as well as the trend of upcycling imperfect fruit for various products like juices and concentrates.

Branding and Marketing Food

We explore the role of private label products and the importance of supporting brands that prioritize diversified farming and preventing monopolies. Your ethos as a consumer is vital. Guilt-tripping consumers into making certain food choices doesn’t work. It’s about identifying your values and beliefs when it comes to food and conducting due diligence on the brands you support.


Podcast Highlights

[00:02:45] Ali Cox, CEO of Noble West focuses on food stories

[00:05:54] Educate consumers on food to combat commoditization.

[00:10:06] Food loss due to grading methods, upcycling fruit, changing grocery store experience with more choice, North American stores focus on the perfect appearance of produce.

[00:13:58] Storytelling, flexibility, upcycled fruit, consumer demand, Walmart.

[00:16:56] Retail programs drive ROI for clients, marketing to growers.

[00:20:07] Marketing farming and growing food is crucial in the larger food ecosystem. It’s the responsibility of marketers to provide tools to clients to build a brand and reach consumers.

[00:23:46] Food cost is the same regardless of sale. Brand and retailer are important for crop and food types. Seasonality and supporting local farmers is key. Customers should ask about specific produce availability.

[00:26:45] Connecting California with artichoke marketing strategies.

[00:31:23] Egg production requires costly operational changes. Expensive eggs result from such changes. Some brands focus on brand marketing, establishing customer relationships. Others fail to educate consumers on prices.

[00:33:02] Understanding ethos as a consumer, choosing wisely.

[00:38:29] Trust, tradition, transparency: building a sustainable future.

[00:41:45] COVID opened doors in complex food system. Understanding seasonality leads to healthier choices. Indoor farming provides year-round local produce. Consumer education is key to cherishing options.

[00:43:09] Local food is healthier and supports farmers.

[00:48:56] Fast food lacks transparency; focus on supply chain.

[00:51:35] Food story tells sustainability, credit to marketers.


Show Notes:



Matt: Hello, dear listener and welcome to another edition of the endless coffee cup. As always, I’m your host, Matt Bailey, and doing my best to bring you a great mix of marketing personalities and, some things in marketing that you may not know exist or think about, or just a different way to look at it.

Today I’ve got another great guest and her name is Ali Cox. And Ali is the founder of Noble West and she is in agricultural marketing. Ali, I’ve got to say when I received the information about you and looking at the information, I was so intrigued because it’s not often we talk to marketers that, there’s the marketing side of what we can learn.

But it’s something that hits every single one of us as a consumer. So I am so excited to talk with you today. How are you doing?

Ali: I’m great. Thanks for having me, Matt. And you’re right. We are talking about a universal need. We all need food to eat and none of us are growing it at scale. So the garden is not our food system, although we do love local produce and everything. So lots to talk about.

Matt: Absolutely. And I love that, you started out with the garden. Ali is a fifth-generation farmer and I’m from the Midwest. So I think immediately we had something in common here. I’m not a farmer. However, my mother, had a half an acre garden growing up and I have terrible memories of going out and weeding it.

And so in that way, Ali, I’m with you. I think I understand a little bit about farming. I knew enough to know I didn’t like working in the field.

Ali: Yeah, understandable. We got to appreciate the people that do that for us and with us. But, now, Matt, there’s lots of robotics and, there are robots in the field doing from a laser reader.

 What, a half-acre garden taught you is probably, still alive, and from a work ethic standpoint, obviously, here you are with an amazing podcast that I’m so pleased to be on, but there’s lots of innovation that have happened in the meantime.

Matt: Absolutely. Just seeing I think the video of that little robot that just crawls the paths there and hits the weeds.

Absolutely amazing, but Ali how do you market food? Let’s just start with the basics there, or how do you market agriculture? What’s involved in how you approach this industry?

Ali: Thanks for asking the question. That’s a loaded question. Could be a white paper or, a whole graduate degree could be taken to answer that.

From our perspective. I am the CEO of Noble West, which is an agriculture and food ingredient marketing agency. We’re headquartered in Turlock, California, which is in the Central Valley of California where likely most of the almonds that you’re eating are grown and harvested and processed and shipped. And, we also have an office in Los Angeles and Columbus, Ohio that really rounds out our team.

But to answer your question, we tell soil-born food stories. And that’s where we really look to tell like the story of how the food was grown. So I really focus on the hero food ingredients. So if it’s a hero, think of a charcuterie board.

You have your grapes. You have your cheese. You have your meat. You have your salami. Those are hero ingredients because there’s only one thing in those ingredients, right? This means that how it was grown, the water that we used to grow it, whether it’s an animal or whether it is fruit or veggies or nuts really in my mind integral to the quality of that experience.

And so we really focus on those hero food ingredients so that we can tell the kind of that full story, which means that the social responsibility behind the farming practice, which means the fertilization, which means the harvesting, which means the ethos that it took to grow really matters to the quality.

And that’s what we like to talk about. So like I always say, if I’m talking to a new business lead, how I can qualify a food brand really quickly I ask, where are your top three or four ingredients sourced? And how do they get to you? And if they don’t know the answer to that, we are probably not going to enjoy a great working relationship because we really dive into it.

However, if they do know that information and they want to leverage those partnerships from their suppliers, we will tell the most beautiful, robust story that they’ve ever heard with a deep amount of detail. And that is why we believe consumers deserve detail about their food system.

Matt: Wow. Absolutely. From a consumer standpoint, I would say we don’t get a lot of information at all about our food. Not knowing where it comes from. You can flip over a box or something and see where it came from those types of things.

But, our food system, I don’t think a lot of people could really explain where a lot of our food comes from, what’s involved with it. But in some ways, it sounds like you’re very much like a chef. You’re sourcing the best ingredients in order to create an amazing dish because that best ingredient has features that it brings to the table and how it interacts with everything else.

Ali: Yeah, that’s a great analogy. And I just believe that unless we provide more information, we can’t expect consumers to value their food more. It’s impossible because we haven’t educated them enough, which means that our food systems are commoditized. 85% of our food system is commoditized. And that means it’s a race to the bottom race to the bottom meetings. What’s cheaper?

Matt: Oh, yeah.

Ali: Which means what’s cheaper to grow? How much does the farmer make? Probably not that much. And so that’s where, unless we build brands and assign more value to the food by exposing the good stories, the real stories, then we’re probably going to be in the same situation that we are now, which consumers, we need to give them the opportunity.

And that might mean spending more money, for food. And you know what, with that opportunity, maybe that’s what some consumers want. And I would argue a lot do, and a lot are actually out foraging for information. And that’s why I think the blogosphere is so big. I think that’s why mommy blogs are so popular.

I think that’s why we have whole influencers based on this, is because people do want the full story. And we have a lot of foodies in the world, right? And a lot of those foodies know that a lot of their food comes from places like California’s large farms.

And they would probably rather buy from a farmer that they understand their farming ethos, and they understand their kind of processes, their logistical chains, their supply chain, and their ethos.

If they have that information, they might say you know what, this is just more valuable to me than this, and I’m going to eat it. And I think this is also Matt the way that we’re likely going to be combating food loss and food waste.

Matt: I want to dive in and…

Ali: Where should we go?

Matt: Yeah, I want to dive into it and define commoditized a little bit more in case any of the listeners don’t understand. I would say probably… I don’t know, how far back do you have to go, Ali, before most of the food was local?

Ali: I think that we need to look at when the railways were built.

Matt: Ah Okay.

Ali: That’s, I think what we need to look at, and also, I think television. Help people understand like, Oh, I might want to be eating out of season. So in order to get fresh produce in the middle of winter, then we are going to need to bring it in on a truck, which then opened up, whole things, which then meant we got to keep it better. We have to keep the produce better or the food better. So we’re going to use ethylene. So that it survives the trip.

And then we’re going to do that. And then, oh, we can farm for cheaper in Mexico and, Central America. Okay. Then we’re going to use ethylene. So there’s lots of that. So I think that there’s a historical journey that we could definitely talk about, but from a commodity standpoint, and that’s what we’re probably looking at like post-World War II.

Matt: And so what has happened is, big corporations have started taking over farms and we see it on an industrial scale in order to satisfy year-round demand. I remember talking to my mother. Actually, I was talking to her about this podcast and she was just saying, avocados now are everywhere.

She says, but I can’t remember the first time I saw an avocado. It had to be when she was an adult. And just to hear that story about what the supermarket was like even 30, 40 years ago to what it’s like today, but it’s because, there are some benefits we’re getting foods that we may not have had access to before, but it’s at such scale and what’s the downside of that scale?

Ali: I think the downside of that scale is there’s a lot of food loss. We talk a lot about imperfect food, right? There’s…

Matt: Ugly food.

Ali: Ugly food, Imperfect food, nutritionally perfect food. If you really want to know, if you go walk into your grocery store in Ohio, every apple is going to look the same, right? Every orange is supposed to look the same.

So the grading methods in the packing houses for that to happen are very strenuous and we do a lot of work in that space. We work with optical sorters. We work with packing house manufacturers. We work with an upcycling fruit company. Noble West is in every single part of that conversation.

We love it, but what’s really, I think, exciting is finding creative ways that are more future growth-minded and futuristic thinking for ag, what to do with our imperfect fruit.

So upcycling fruit, that’s a humongous trend that I love being part of. But that grocery store experience has changed just the varieties have changed the selection of changes, the abundance and it’s also created some climate issues, which is something else we could talk about.

But from a consumer perspective, there’s more choice than ever and I think that we’re having a US-centric conversation and that we’re looking for everything to be the same and perfect. Whereas, in Europe, you will go to the grocery store and you will see apples of all different shapes, sizes, and colors that are what a real tree would produce.

Matt: Yeah, and I think anyone who’s traveled may have noticed that and I’ve talked to other people in the industry when we travel or something that the food seems to taste a little better. It seems a little fresher, it seems closer to the plate. Also, visitors to the U.S. Have commented on that as well.

Very nicely. They don’t want to offend, but there seems to be that. Yes, in the U. S., we’re a little further away from the growers when it gets to the plate than in other places around the world.

Ali: Yeah. I think we’re also a bigger country though.

Matt: Yes.

Ali: Seasonal eating really isn’t a thing here seasonality. I think there are different ways to weave that, but I will say there’s a big movement with indoor farming, vertical farming. There are greenhouses throughout the United States throughout the Midwest. In Canada, in snowy areas, I actually think that we have the opportunity now for our food to be closer to us than ever and to eat a very biodiverse diet year-round that is greenhouse grown, which is a whole new movement and something that I love following.

Matt: Absolutely. That is so fascinating. And I try to eat healthy. So I consider myself partially aware of some of these things. But tell me a little more about what you’re doing to reduce waste. You said you were in all parts of that, how are you eliminating waste and really getting more out of what’s being produced?

Ali: I think that first, it’s the story, right? We’re telling the proper authentic stories of our clients. Cherry processors, organic hydroponic greens. We’re telling those real stories, so that way people understand more about how the food is grown. And once we do that, there’s lots of flexibility, right?

Because then you have an audience who wants to know the good, bad, and the ugly. And it also gives us the opportunity to talk about, like I said, mentioned before, upcycled fruit.

So upcycled fruit means that you take a fruit that’s basically, perfectly edible, but imperfect by our grading standards and we can utilize that for different pastes, for different slews, for juices, for concentrate.

That to me is the future because we need to do more with less and, most of that fruit is typically gone to silage. So that’s where I think that there’s just a lot of opportunity, but the consumers and I think consumer demand is part of what’s driving this, which is like the most beautiful part. And I think there are a lot of retailers who are trying to do the right thing.

And believe it or not, I think one of those retailers is Walmart. Walmart has very strict sustainability rules that the produce industry follows. I think it’s a checkoff point of 104 different items that the produce company has to follow in order to be sold in Walmart.

Matt: Wow.

Ali: And they also have a big upcycling initiative as well. So that’s where I think like I said, I’m so excited about the future because I think we’re going to be able to do more. And I also believe that is going to help the farmers in the long run.

Matt: Absolutely. Now you do work with farmers as well, right?

Ali: Oh yes, absolutely. I like to say that one of the languages I speak is Grower. Oh, there’s B2B, there’s, B2C, and I like to say there’s B2G.

Matt: I love that.

Ali: Business to grower, and that is a core competency of Noble West. I think half of our clients were doing grower marketing, too. Because we do a lot of work in ag tech and with quite a few act service providers. That is something that, we obviously love to tell them. Being a farmer, my family’s a farm, my husband’s a farmer. So I obviously have deep roots and care about the future bag.

Matt: So could you give me an example? How do you work with growers and I’m assuming you’re marketing them for products, for distribution, or for direct sales?

Ali: There are two ways to answer that. The first is we do a lot of retail programs for our clients who are looking to, create a better ROI with their customers, which is the retail grocery stores, and help them with marketing and developing programs so that they understand who their farmers are and they give them access to those stories to tell to their own marketing audiences, which is their grocery store customers.

That’s a huge part of our business and is something I love doing because I think that, again, I think that just drives more ROI that it goes back to the farmer, for work they’ve already done because it still costs the same amount to grow the food.

And then the 2nd part is marketing to growers. So helping the service providers and the ag technology companies reach their target audience, which are farmers and oftentimes PCAs, which are crop advisors.

So we really focus on telling those stories and believe it or not, marketing to growers is challenging because of all the obvious reasons why it’s the most resilient, crew there is, right? There’s nobody more resilient than a farmer. And so we really focus on, creating avenues so that they can better communicate their stories and kind of their offerings.

Matt: Oh, interesting. Yeah. When I think of a profession that hasn’t changed much, farming’s one of them other than the equipment. My goodness, the farming equipment that they’ve got now is just phenomenal. That’s the most visual thing that I see here being in Ohio.

I get stuck behind some of that equipment as I’m driving around. So I get to see it up close and personal.

Ali: I would say the technology has changed a lot, too.

Matt: Yeah.

Ali: Obviously there’s tech on the equipment, like you mentioned, which is totally true. But, just things like the margins continue to get smaller and smaller for farmers continue to get squeezed.

So I use this example. On our family farm in the last 2 years, our operational expenses are up 30% and I would say our commodity pricing is down because we’re, farming almonds. So we’re getting squeezed.

So how can you do more with less? And how can you utilize all the tools out there? And the ag tech industry is absolutely, expansively growing. And I think that’s one of the more exciting things that we get to work on a day-to-day basis.

Matt: And that’s scary to see that trend where the profits are getting lower, but the expenses are getting higher. You’re excited about the future, but how does that happen? If that’s the trend, but that’s the goal, what’s going to get us there?

Ali: I think what’s going to get us there is less commoditized pricing, more brand value-driven pricing. So that way consumers can decide which brand they feel more aligned with and which food source they feel more aligned with. Who do they trust more?

Matt: Okay.

Ali: That to me is where we’re going to see the needle change. And, we talk a lot about this, whose job is it to market farming and whose job is it to market the growing of food as part of the larger food ecosystem that within the industry, you could some wrestle over that and that’s where, is it the farmers? Is it the processor? Is it the retailer? Is it the association? Is it the commodity brokers?

It’s really fair game. But that’s something that we feel as marketers, it’s really our job to provide tools to our clients many of whom are growers, packers, and shippers. Saying you could continue to do it this way and hope that the commodity pricing gets you where you need to be.

Or we could think about building out a brand so that we can reach audiences and we can reach the consumers who are then going to make the decision with their pocketbooks.

Matt: I love that. I love that. So going right to the consumer, bypassing the conglomerates, and getting that direct feedback. A consumer, I think would bypass as much as possible to get something that’s direct.

I mean that you’ve got the stores that try to mimic being a close-to-farm type experience. When you’ve got the crates and, I’m not going to say who it is, but they do everything to make it look like you’re at a farm stand and maybe the food came from those places, but it’s certainly not a farm stand.

Ali: Yeah and I think that what you’re talking about is then who has the trust? So the consumer has the trust of the retail partner. They believe in their sourcing. They believe in their supply chain and that’s all well and good. That’s not necessarily bad.

I think Costco’s in that camp. I think Trader Joe’s is the absolute poster child for private labels. But I think what we’re talking about, Matt, is this is why e-commerce started. This is why e-commerce is thriving. This is why boxing companies like BoxFox or Thrive Market. This is why new channels have opened because consumers want choice.

Matt: Yeah. How do you separate the brand from the retailer to the consumer?

Ali: That’s a good question. I think that where we really focus on is that’s how all the sauce is made, right? That’s where brands are going to retailers who are oftentimes that’s the end goal is to get retail marketing, get my brand on a shelf.

But I think the more interesting question is whose job is it to sell it. Is it the grocery store’s job to market what’s on their shelves, or is it the brand’s job to create enough demand within that retailer that they go buy it and then they go restock it? That to me is where retail marketing and retail sales are really fascinating.

And it’s really fascinating because it then needs to trickle down hopefully it’s not a cost-effective way so that the farmers actually get paid what they’re deserved.

Matt: Absolutely.

Ali: Because again, it always costs the same amount of money to grow the food, regardless if it’s on sale or not. But I think your question of is it the brand of the retailer? That is the messy middle. And I think you have to look at the crop types. And you also have to look at the brand types and the food types.

So what I love to see is, I love to see seasonality. I love to see seasonal eating, obviously supporting local farmers markets and all of that is priority number one.

But then when we want to look at the actual food ecosystem at scale, that’s where we want to make sure that our clients are telling their real authentic story and creating enough demand so that they are asking their retailer to stock what they have and really celebrating that seasonality.

I want customers to be walking in and talking to the produce manager at their grocery store around the country at Myers, where you probably shop or wherever to say, hey, when are the California cherries going to be in? Is it time?

And then I want the produce manager to have enough information from their supply partner to say, they’re ripening up any day. Now, the harvest crews are starting to set up. We expect that our partner is going to be picking within the next couple of days. It’s May 10th or whatnot, which means then we’ll have them 7 days later.

Matt: Wow.

Ali: Come back in 7 days.

Matt: I love that scenario.

Ali: That it’s like perfect.

Matt: Yeah. It makes it local, but understanding that it’s grown somewhere else. We went through this the other day about artichokes in our house. Yeah, we love artichokes, but they’re nowhere to be found right now. Which I was surprised about.

But then, we have to go to the typical suspects that have them year-round. And so it’s just once in a while, you’ve got to look a little deeper for them. But that’s one of those things that, yes, it’d be awesome to be able to ask someone local, when are they coming in? How do I get the freshest? Where are they? Where am I going to find that type of information?

Ali: Okay. So can we stay on artichokes for a hot second?

Matt: Absolutely. We can.

Ali: I’m curious who in your house Googled artichokes? And went and Googled brands that grow pack and ship artichokes.

Matt: That would probably have been a daughter. Of all of them, she wants the artichokes and she’s probably the most technical savvy of them.

Ali: Okay. I feel like I should be friends with her then. Being the good California native that I am. But that’s where she probably would have found herself on an ocean mist or whatnot.

But guess what? Most artichoke growers, packers, shippers do not have a robust marketing strategy, and especially the smaller ones that are co-packed into larger ones, but that’s where if she would have had that information, she probably would have gone down their social media, followed them, followed the story. And then guess what’s happening, her interest in her food.

And then before you know it, she’s going to say, okay, they’re harvesting in Salinas Valley. Then she goes to the produce person and then she can find it and she can follow that story along. And then if there’s proper retail marketing since she’s Googling artichokes, she would have already been in the digital advertising funnel.

And before she knows it, she’s marketed everything about artichokes and she’s being, offered to do contests for artichokes. For the Archie company. That’s food ingredient marketing. That’s hero food.

Matt: Absolutely. There is a whole lot there that could be explored and developed, for people who are fans of food, which I know, I was introduced to him in college and never looked back. It’s become one of our favorites here.

Ali: Yeah, no, it’s great. Yeah. Good. So you really are a Californian heart.

Matt: When driving through the Central Valley and just there’s a farm stand, I was an artichoke heaven seeing that here’s this been in there a dollar a piece and here’s these that are 3 a piece. They’re a little bit bigger. And then there are these that are 5 dollars a piece because they’re huge. And, oh, loaded up that night …

Ali: I think that’s like just a great example of a fantastic specialty crop, that’s grown in California. It’s one of the 400 specialty crops that are grown, packed, and shipped in California. And artichokes can’t grow anywhere else. They have to grow in the Salinas Valley because they need hot days and they need really cold nights.

The soil cannot get above a certain temperature. And so that’s why it’s such, a special seasonal crop. And that’s okay, there’s nothing wrong with that. And that is beautiful as long as those artichoke farmers and those artichoke brands are telling that story that is really robust to find your family because you don’t tell that brand story. That’s where we’re missing out. And that’s where the smaller farmers aren’t going to get that ROI because it’s just going to come in, co-mingle and go get marketed as a commodity.

Matt: Absolutely. Absolutely. Another great example and you actually brought this up in our pre-podcast call was we just went through this with eggs. I forget what it was, but someone was on video and they were throwing eggs at somebody and everyone was just “At the price of eggs, you’re going to do that?” I know that I have made an offer. The price more than doubled in many parts of the country, and I don’t think it was until about a month or two that I started to see articles about why the price of eggs is so high. There was very little communication about that, so I think it fits exactly what you talked about.

Ali: Yeah. I think that on a national level, that conversation was addressed really well, about the avian flu. And this is something that will pass, please bear with us. This is the cost.

And, that was communicated to consumers and consumers understood it. And I would venture to guess consumers really value their eggs more than they ever have before. And now I think the price is leveled out. I don’t know exactly what it is per carton.

But in California, there’s been some major legislation that has just passed in 2023 about all hens that are raised in California needing to be cage-free. That was a law that was just passed, which in general, I think most consumers would be like, it’s good. I want my hens to be able to, of course, I want my hens to be able to walk and live a nice life, happy hens, happy eggs, but if you are an egg producer, an egg farmer, guess what? You have just created a whole construction project for yourself.

You are refactoring your entire farming operation. I’m not here to say it’s bad or it’s good. It just is a fact that you have to change your way of doing business from an operational standpoint.

And that means that PS, your eggs should probably be more expensive. But if we, actually took the time to tell the story about that, and a lot of brands do. I want to call out some of the best of the best, like Chino Valley Ranchers, for example, an extraordinary family-run business, happy eggs in Arkansas, and vital proteins.

These are great organizations. And they also, by the way, have really good brands and they focus on brand marketing. It’s not a commodity. And they have a relationship with their customers. Their customers understand them as a brand, but in general, commoditized eggs have decided, we’re not going to value the consumers enough to tell the full story about the price. To me, that feels like a problem and a completely missed opportunity to educate consumers because maybe we don’t think they deserve the information or we don’t want to take the time or they’re going to buy it anyway. Not sure.

Matt: Wow. Wow. So that leads me to a question just based on your last statement there. How should we as consumers evaluate the food we buy?

Ali: Yeah. I think great question. I think it starts with understanding your ethos, right? Like understanding your ethos as a consumer. And that’s where I always challenge our clients. Listen, we’re not going to guilt them into buying the more expensive one. That’s not going to work. Nobody wants that.

And we’re not going to guilt them into buying the better-for-you product. Cause it, who really wants healthy ice cream? We know that, but that’s where it’s like, what is your ethos? Be like, we stand for seasonality.

We like seasonal food and we’re going to really focus our diet around seasonality. Okay. Or do we really believe in organic for these reasons? That’s fine too, but really just, I think understanding is the first part of it being cognizant and aware of your choices, I think, is part of it.

And then really doing the due diligence on the brands that you support. That’s where I would say, I’m probably the most annoying consumer. I walk around the grocery store with my phone out looking at everybody’s Instagram accounts because I’m a marketer, but really doing the due diligence on those brands that you do support.

Where are they grown? Where are they packaged? Who’s growing the food? How does it get to me? I think just like asking those questions because that’s where the food brands that are making the good choices and are making the hard call on the farm and aren’t quite frankly taking the more expensive route to produce our food, they’re happy to tell that story.

That’s why they hire us. That’s why they have competitors, that’s why they’re doing that is because they are proud to tell their story. I know those are the brands I want to support for my family.

Matt: I was telling my wife the other day I was in the store and I saw a package of double stuff Oreos, the only way I could get myself not to buy them was to look at the ingredients and that enabled me to put it back on the shelf. But it’s that type of stuff.

Ali: You didn’t recognize.

Matt: Yes, exactly. The palm oil, I know enough. I’m trying to avoid anything with corn syrup or anything like that. But, I think what you’re describing is really a consumer revolution in food.

Ali: Yeah.

Matt: Is…

Ali: Power.

Matt: Yeah, that’s what you’re describing is caring about what you eat and forming yourself rather than just, picking up what looks good. I have always been fascinated by how people buy lettuce cantaloupe or watermelon, how many people are they going to hit it?

Or how do you evaluate the food that you see in the aisle? I don’t think many people are aware of that.

Ali: Oh I could definitely talk to you about the melons because I worked on the melon line in my family company for 10 years of my childhood. Yeah, but I think you’re right that’s where it’s power and that’s where it’s education.

I think probably if you Google, how do you know which melon to buy? Who’s going to invest in that content? Is it the Melon company? Is it the melon association? Is it a mommy blogger with a strong, loyal following? Like whose content wins? Who has decided that we are going to play the game who has great content on a socially optimized blog or website with relevant information and it happens to be served up to me right when I need it based on my demographic? That’s food marketing.

Matt: That’s amazing. That’s amazing. And one of the things, we’ve seen more and more is what’s authoritative, and correct. That’s one of the things I educate people about all the time just because something’s ranking doesn’t means it’s correct. We see that all the time on YouTube or anything like that. It just means it’s popular or it hits an algorithm. How much do you have to fight against misinformation?

Ali: I think that’s a big part of it. That’s a big part of it because the real authorities typically are a little reticent to tell their story because again, back to whose job is it?

Is it the farmers? Is it the processors? Is it the association? I would argue that the most qualified people in agriculture are also the quietest. That’s my dad. He has no interest in doing that. Like he’s a farmer. He wants to tell the story. He loves farming. He likes getting up and watching things grow and harvesting them and feeling proud of the community that he’s supporting.

He’s not really that interested in publishing a blog. It will never happen.

Matt: Yes.

Ali: Definitely is the most qualified to talk to you about. But that’s, I think why we exist is that’s why we exist as agriculture marketers in the food ingredient system is, we want the authorities to have the ability to tell their story and that’s why we want to support them in that.

Matt: So how open is an expert like your father, how open is he to telling a story? Or to, allowing someone to tell his story, I imagine that’s what you run into with a lot of the family farms, especially.

Ali: I think if your daughter is the one telling it, there’s a lot of trust there, obviously, but that’s where our clients, I think, find that trust with us immediately in the understanding that they know how much I value tradition, heritage, and history, and the hard work that it’s gone to survive all of these generations.

But we do it in a way that hopefully builds a path and paves the path for the future through transparency traceability and consumer preferences and consumer knowledge that allows a kind of comfort in that we’re here to help. We’re not here to exploit.

That’s where we, I think Noble West is finding a niche and that’s where we really just feel so honored to tell those stories when we’re welcomed in. And we’re not alone, there are other agencies like us, and there are other marketers like us. And I think that the more we all kind of work together in that effort, it’s going to make consumers value, especially U.S.-grown food.

Matt: You’ve said a couple of things that I want to go back to because it’s in my mind now as a consumer and a marketer, you talked about the importance of seasonality and why is that so important. Why should that be important to them?

Ali: There’s a whole host of reasons. Number one, I think taste. If you’re going to eat a very perishable product that a seasonality assigned to it, a cherry, a sumo citrus, I would say I think they’ve set the bar for seasonality marketing, and celebrate that their oranges are 10 apiece.

Because they’re the peak of the season, that’s where also, if you want to support efforts in, more environmentally friendly food, if you do want to really not be part of the cold chain system, and you also want to have likely fewer chemicals on your food, the more seasonal they are.

The more you’re going to enjoy them. And of course, we’re talking mostly about perishable food right now. That to me is a critical part of the piece of the story. But I think that also comes with education.

Matt: And that sounds like that’s the majority of what you’re doing is you’re educating consumers about why the brand is important, but it seems like there’s a whole nother level like there’s more of a macro education that you’re doing as far as sustainability, environment, those types of things that got that appeal, or that level of education that has to go even beyond the brand and into here’s how these farming practices may affect the environment. That’s a big macro level now that you’re on.

Ali: It’s a complex food system. And that’s where I think COVID really helped to blow some doors open, particularly in like meat processing. That’s where we all read a lot of headlines. It’s very complicated, but I think that the more that we understand seasonality, that’s when consumers can understand if they’re willing to spend some time learning, and if they’re willing to spend some time identifying what their ethos is in food, they’re going to feel healthier. And again, the biodiversity of the diet to me is what I think drives that.

But truly there are companies like Gotham Greens, for example, and local bounty vertical farming, and indoor farming throughout the country where you could have local produce in, January in Michigan.

And that to me is just fantastic. It’s just fantastic. And I think it’s great for consumers and I just love that consumers have a choice, but unless they’re digging in understanding more about the food system, then they probably, won’t be able to cherish that. And that’s where I think just ambivalence and taste and profile is where seasonality. that’s where I think the breakdown is.

Matt: I would agree with that. And I think just that understanding of how local. Food can be much healthier, and one of the things, we’re trying to do is support local farmers, and local growers we’ve got a meat processor that is nearby and you’d love it.

Their t-shirt says Friends don’t let friends store beef, that’s this story there, but it’s all local farmers. That’s where they take their beef and it’s all processed and we buy locally from that because there is a big difference when you do that. And you said this the other day when we talked, the future is local and you are more positive and optimistic about that. And I just thought that was such good news.

Ali: Yes, really am. I think the thing is, we’re here to talk about food at scale. And I do think the food at scale can be localized. And I also believe that the commingling of food products happens when food is just commoditized. For example, we’ve worked at the California Dried Bean Advisory Board for 11 years now. I know a lot about bean marketing, and I love beans. We grow beans on our family farm. It’s a definite passion, food of mine.

Right now, all beans are comical, so if you have a garbanzo that’s grown in California and a garbanzo that’s grown in Michigan, under any of the domestic brands, It’s going to say product of the USA. That’s because there hasn’t been an effort and an interest in marketing to consumers in a way that allows them to, understand more about and value more of their food.

But there are some brands, some bean brands that are doing a really great job of marketing themselves. And they’re telling the story, but they’ve assigned value to their food. They’re not price takers. They’re price setters. It’s a whole different mindset.

Matt: Absolutely. And I love that story. love that of being able to reward the source more than the system that, transports the food all over the place. Ali, this has been such a wonderful conversation. I think we could probably go for another hour, maybe we will because there’s just so much to cover here. You obviously love what you do. I can tell that you have such, I’ll use the phrase, you have such deep roots in this industry and your knowledge is just so amazing. Let me just ask you a couple of things. What can we as consumers do to improve our diets, to improve and make this future as optimistic as you see it?

Ali: I would say consumers could just lean into their food sources. Know where your food comes from. Know, who grows it. Spend time engaging with the food brands that you believe in and of course, there’s a time and place for commoditized food. That’s the majority of where our family sells. There are products, but I think understanding more about your food sources is what I would just really really champion until the cows come home, because definitely want to make sure that those food brands that are hero food ingredients continue to tell that story.

Consumer marketing is not an easy route. It is the hard route. You talk a lot about that on your podcast, like how to market to consumers. What are consumers looking for? That is the challenging route. It is much easier to sell a container of unbranded product to someone to go to a private label company that’s going to go put their Rayleigh’s brand on our, Safeway or what everybody, every single retailer has their own house brand.

So that label, it is much easier, but you are not going to have nearly as much information about if you buy from cowgirl creamery in Northern California, where you know who the owners are, and they can tell you all about their food source and it’s all there and their dairy nutrition and everything else you are supporting a real, like a brand that is invested in you because they’re telling you the story.

And again, that’s typically not the cheap route, but it is the route that will allow for, more diversified, farming and fewer monopolies, which I know consumers who care about.

Matt: Absolutely. Absolutely. I wasn’t going to get into that today. I know we’re already well into it because yeah, the monopolistic practices and we didn’t even touch on the fast food industry. Do you, your eyes just… Listener, if you’re not watching the video, you’re going to have to check that out. Okay. We’ve got a few minutes here. What was your first reaction when I said fast food?

Ali: Oh, economies of scale. So for a few big humongous farming entities, they’ve got a very good customer, right? But I think that’s also where we’re not hearing a ton about the quality of food from fast food chains. I think that’s probably where if I think about in and out burger, there were more, I would say they set the bar with Jake’s transparency with food ecosystems and food supply chain.

I know that’s a brand that I’ve been following forever and read everything I can about it. But I think that if less consumers are asking for that information, they’re probably not going to get it.

I did read an article a couple of years ago about Buffalo Wild Wings, and I don’t know if you follow that chain at all, but their wings have continuously, I think, gotten better and there was a big c-suite shift about probably seven or eight years ago, and that’s when they really decided to focus on their supply chain and their farmers so that they could get access to better wings in a more proprietary way. And that is something that I know that I continue to follow. And that’s where you can see that by investing in farmers, they’ve been able to, I think rebranded. I think that they like, being able to have continued growth.

But I know that that’s just 1 area where I think part of our food system is for sure a race to the bottom. And I don’t know if when we’re eating fast food, which we all do, so let’s just not look guilty here when we all order eating fast food is that what our motive for our choices? I doubt it. But that’s probably a place where, you know, if I knew more about where our fast food comes from, then I likely would. That’s where I’d probably take my family.

Matt: Absolutely. Yeah, I understand. I completely agree that fast food is a race to the bottom. And it was one of those things the other night we were trying to figure out what to eat at the last moment and nothing sounded good.

We ended up cooking and had dinner at 9:30 at night. And I’m sure over the past few years, the quality has gone down in monopolistic, large enterprise, fast food brands. And some days I feel like that’s all around us. It was just more appetizing to stay home and make something.

Ali: Yeah. You probably were happy you made that choice in the end. I think there’s some good happening to there’s DEI initiatives that are being met, which typically trickle down to their supply chain. There are sustainability metrics that are being set typically at a board governance level, that are probably trickling down in the supply chain. So where the food comes from?

So again, that’s where that story has to be told. I think it goes back to your ethos because as consumers, we have the power of the purse. So what do we care about? And I see that lots of our, clients and work things that we’ve worked on projects that we’ve worked on, where there are different sustainability goals and it’s our job to say, no, we already have solar. Let’s talk about that.

How many kilowatts of energy have we created because we’re on solar or we’re already on dual line drip irrigation, which is a very expensive drip air? It’s the most expensive way to irrigate anything. So we’re already on that. We’re already using ag technology. Let’s tell that story. We have to tell those stories to our clients because they need to get credit for that. And if you don’t do that, then the marketers have nothing to work.

Matt: Yeah. And you’re left with a pretty bland story that avoids anything about the true nature of the food and where it comes from.

Ali: Exactly. And we always say around here at Noble West, quality is a word that costs extra. Our VP of Client Services and Strategy, Sarah Cho, I say that all the time. Quality is a word that costs extra. If you use that word, then you need about a paragraph to explain what you mean by it.

Matt: Absolutely agree. oh my goodness, I’ve got to introduce you to so many people because of that, emphasis on quality. You just can’t say the word it means something, and you’ve got to explain what it is.

Ali: I know. I think we’re going to have some unhappy friends at Wendy’s though, because I think that’s their tagline. It’s all over the restaurants. Yes. I said it. You didn’t.

Matt: Thank you. You’re the food expert. I will let you make that judgment. Oh, Ali, this has been a wonderful wonderful time and certainly, if you’re open to it, I would love to have you back on another show and talk a little more about this and maybe get into the intricacies of what it takes to market a brand in the food industry. I’d love to know some of the stories of what you’ve dealt with and we could dive into this a little further.

Ali: Absolutely. It would be my pleasure. Thank you, Matt. This has been wonderful.

Matt: Thank you, Ali. And by the way, we’ve talked to anyone that might be a good, customer or someone who just wants to follow up with you, what would be the best way for them to contact you or Noble West?

Ali: Oh, I would say go to, and. Go to the socials, we’re @ WeAreNobleWest.

Matt: Wonderful. I like it when it’s all in one place, it’s easy to handle. And we will put that in the show notes, dear listener so that it makes it easy for you to find. Ali, thanks again. This has been an amazing conversation.

Ali: Thanks, Matt. I appreciate it. And let’s just keep talking about artichokes.

Matt: Absolutely. I’ll let you know when we can get some and maybe you can throw a box in the mail.

Ali: It would be my pleasure. It would be my pleasure.

Matt: All right. Dear listener, thanks again for tuning in to another edition of the Endless Coffee Cup. And I look forward to meeting with you next time over another cup of coffee.

Endless Coffee Cup podcast

Featured Guest:

Ali Cox

CEO, Noble West

Ali Cox, CEO of Noble West

Ali Cox is an agriculture and food ingredient marketing visionary and founder of Noble West, an awardwinning marketing consultancy that specializes in the entire agricultural ecosystem. From fresh produce and nuts to dairy and agTech, Noble West works in all aspects of agriculture.
As a fifth generation farmer, Cox returned home to California’s Central Valley in 2007 with the singular goal of making world-class marketing services available to the abundance of farmers and growers in the area. A fierce advocate for farmers, Ali’s blend of a deep personal connection to the land and business acumen has made her a highly sought after strategist by her clients. With an eye on the future of farming and the climate crisis, Cox regularly consults with her clients on upcycling, regenerative water use, and hydroponic and
organic farming practices.

Website: Noble West 



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