Transparency Marketing in the Primary Sector

Agriculture and forestry have a serious PR problem. “The ‘eat plant based to save the planet’ message is cutting through,” writes David Burrows, quoting dairy producer Liz Haines in Farmers Weekly, a UK-based trade magazine. “Climate change ‘is our Achilles heel, and the one that vegans have really capitalised on in recent years.”[1] Burrows quotes National Farmers Union deputy president Guy Smith, who explained, “they [vegans] are hijacking the climate change debate.” [1]

In forestry, “companies are moving into B.C.’s community watersheds with increasing speed as they run out of logging options elsewhere,” reported Sarah Cox for the Tyee, spelling a marketing disaster for forestry companies.[2]

Heather McSwan, a resident fighting the encroachment on the Glade Watershed by Kalesnikoff Lumber Company (KLC), is one of the people behind the shift in public opinion. “This is our water that we’re talking about,” McSwan stated. “When the timber’s gone the environment is impacted in a way that will result, somewhere down the road, in the degradation of the water, especially with climate change coming.”[2] This PR problem clearly comprises a matrix of intertwined issues—but this crisis can be succinctly summed up as a unanimous change in the winds. But luckily, one marketing salve is within reach: transparency.

Social and environmental concerns cut industries deeply, and maybe for good reason. It is undeniable that irresponsible forestry practices, including transportation and warehousing, and that unsustainable factory farming in agriculture have serious negative impacts on myriad communities. But that isn’t the whole story. More than ever before, companies are engaging sustainable, green practices to combat climate change and social issues while maintaining a viable business model. Still, the PR problem persists. With a distinct taste for change, consumers in the secondary and tertiary sectors are sending shockwaves through the primary sector with demands for green, socially responsible practices from the top of the production pipeline to the bottom. 

Transparency marketing has been popular for about a decade, but is presently coming into its own. While it can look like many different things, transparency marketing generally revolves around price transparency, business practice transparency and social transparency—and the results are vast.

“By becoming vulnerable, opening up what companies traditionally hide from customers, partners and investors, and talking about the issues they have struggled with and haven’t been able to solve, companies can develop deeper relationships with those often kept at arm’s length, even other groups within the same company,” writes John Hagel III for Fortune.[3]

For example, A&W’s “Beef Guarantee” emphasizes Canadian, US, or New Zealand grown meat raised without the use of artificial hormones or steroids.[4] This is a bold claim that differentiates A&W from its largest competitor, McDonald’s. Production at this level occupies a space further down the production pipeline, but the message stands: as an agricultural producer, being transparent about pricing and practices will attract businesses such as A&W—perhaps precisely for the sake of their own transparency.

For forestry producers, this might look like a frank discussion of steps taken to mitigate, or minimize the environmental impacts of transporting and warehousing timber and lumber; or a clear cost breakdown to communicate why certain products cost more than others. With both agriculture and forestry facing complicated and serious market obstacles, it is important to emphasize the business decisions which align with the new direction of public favour. Because, while it is the case that warehousing, transporting and harvesting timber or agricultural products do have negative impacts, a lot of good has already been done to bring these industries up to a greener, more socially responsible code. For example, “Canada leads the world in third-party certification, with more land certified to voluntary, market-based forest programs than any other country,” claims Sustainable Forestry Management Canada, boasting rigorous regulation and supervision.[5] By extension, companies practicing in Canada (should) adhere to such guidelines. 

Making this adherence clear is not only morally advisable, but an excellent strategic tool. As researchers from Colorado State University found, “With followers, leaders need to be very transparent and in addition be confident in themselves, hopeful of the future with both the desire to succeed and a plan to accomplish that success, optimistic toward the future, and demonstrate their resilience to bounce back and beyond. Followers who perceive their leaders to be transparent and positive seem to trust them and judge them to be effective in leading them through challenging times.”[6]

It turns out, for businesses in the primary sector, honesty really is the best policy. 

[1] Burrows, David. How Meat and Dairy Are Countering Criticism on Climate. 18 Nov. 2019,
[2] Cox, Sarah. “‘You Can’t Drink Money’: BC Communities Fight Logging to Protect Drinking Water.” The Tyee, 25 July 2019,
[3] Hagel III, John. “How to Deepen Customer Loyalty: Be Transparent.” Fortune, Accessed 24 Nov. 2019.
[4] A&W Canada. Accessed 24 Nov. 2019.
[5] Sustainable Forest Management in Canada | CCFM. Accessed 24 Nov. 2019
[6] Norman, Steven M., et al. “The Impact of Positivity and Transparency on Trust in Leaders and Their Perceived Effectiveness.” The Leadership Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 3, June 2010, pp. 350–64. (Crossref), doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2010.03.002.