In talking about the indispensable consumers of our food, we will look back and look ahead with three topics:

Milligan bob
Senior Consultant / Dairy Strategies LLC
Bob Milligan is also professor emeritus, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornel...
  • In “Customers and the market,” we review the role of the customer in how businesses operate.
  • In “Customers and attributes,” we will understand that customers really do not purchase products (food); they purchase attributes.
  • In “Consumers and leadership of your farm,” we identify the role of your customers in your strategic leadership role.

Customers and the market

“Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants, so long as it is black” is a famous quote from Henry Ford about the Model T.

This quote is representative of his time. Mass production of goods was just beginning; consumers had very little money compared to today.

This statement reflects a producer-driven economy. The producer – in this case, Ford Motor Company – is the primary determiner of what is produced. The consumer buys what is produced.

The producer-driven economy existed in the U.S. through and for a time after World War II. Immediately after World War II, Americans bought whatever was produced in response to the scarcity of the war years.


During this period, though, the seeds of change were being sown. Americans were becoming more affluent and more diverse; business was becoming more competitive as the scarcity-induced demand was met.

In the 1950s and ’60s, American markets changed forever. They became consumer-driven. Consumers determined what they wanted – products, colors, styles, etc. – by voting with their pocketbooks.

Today, it is generally understood that consumers are kings and queens – and successful businesses meet their demands.

Consumers and attributes

Most of the readers (and the author) of this article do not own a Porsche or a Mercedes. Why not? In selecting transportation, most of us are seeking practicality: cost, mileage, reliability.

We do have varying demands for size of vehicle, style and features. Why would someone buy a Porsche or a Mercedes? The answer is prestige, extraordinary reliability or maybe snobbery.

From the above, we can see that we do not buy a vehicle; we purchase a vehicle that has the attributes we are seeking.

A young couple seeking economy may purchase a Corolla or a Focus. A larger family seeking to travel comfortably together may look at an SUV or a minivan.

Returning to beef products and food, we need to understand that, similarly, consumers are purchasing the attributes of these products.

What are the attributes consumers look for in food? Certainly price and quality remain as important attributes; however, other attributes have become increasingly important: convenience, an increasing array of quality and healthiness dimensions, and location of production, including produced in the U.S. and grown locally.

As Americans have become more affluent, price has been replaced by a variety of additional attributes: organic, natural, vegetarian.

An even smaller number have added attributes that focus on the production practices used to produce the food: animal welfare practices, hormone/antibiotic- free and the size of the producing business.

The crucial point is that consumers of beef products and food in general are demanding an increasing diversity of attributes. There is every reason to believe that this increase in diversity of attributes will continue.

Consumers and leadership of your farm

Owners of farms and agribusinesses today must place a much higher priority on their leadership responsibilities. Understanding the increasing diversity of attribute preferences is a key part of that responsibility.

Think about the following:

  • The leaders of Walmart and Target responded much more quickly to the changing preferences of consumers for “low-price” goods than did Montgomery Ward, Kmart, JC Penney and Sears.
  • Toyota and Honda leadership responded much more quickly (by decades) to the increasingly important fuel economy attribute than did General Motors, Chrysler and Ford.

What, then, is the leadership responsibility of the owner of a farm or agribusiness? The answer is that they must determine what to market that is the best match between the vision and resources – physical, financial, human – available to the business, and the attributes that are demanded by customers.

Over the last several decades, we have seen an increase in the number of farms that have chosen to market to the increasing diversity of attributes – organic, natural, locally grown, open range, etc.

Table 1

A major challenge for agriculture today is that the attributes those of us in agriculture tend to look for in food are quite different from those sought by a majority of consumers (see Table 1).

The challenge

What, then, is our customer orientation responsibility as owners and leaders in agriculture?

The answer is that we must “listen to” our customers. This means seeking to understand the attributes that are being demanded and the various opportunities available to meet those demands.

It is not “educating our customers” to convince them that they should seek our attributes. Remember, we live in a customer-driven world.

The reality is that in listening to our customer, we may uncover business opportunities. As the diversity of attributes sought by consumers increases, so will the number of different products that are produced.

Your responsibility is to determine what attribute market gives you the best opportunity to implement a winning strategy given your vision for your farm or agribusiness and the resources available to you.  end mark

Bob Milligan is a senior consultant with Dairy Strategies LLC and a professor emeritus at Cornell University. You can e-mail Bob.