Not Just Farmer John: Land O'Lakes CMO Addresses Misconceptions About Rural America


Like many people living in cities and suburban areas, marketers often tend to overlook rural communities, or apply sweeping generalizations to disparate areas. In her ANA Masters of Marketing presentation, Land O’Lakes Senior Vice President and CMO Heather Malenshek attempted to combat the “urban/rural divide” rhetoric that  dominates discourse.

Such division, she argued, is largely a product of self-reinforcing media narratives, and is counterproductive. Many harbor outdated and oversimplified views of what rural communities are, she said, imagining a bucolic scene of traditional farm life in a monocultural community. In reality, meanwhile, rural communities are as different from each other as cities are, and today’s agricultural industry employs advanced technology like AI and drones.

People also picture agricultural and rural areas as aging communities on the wane. But rural Gen-Zers, , are shaking up the agricultural industry and rural communities, returning to their roots and applying their values to effect change, Malenshek said.

“When growth is the key indicator of success, rural America will always be on the decline,” she explained, since once rural spreads reach a certain size they are reclassified. “It’s not that rural doesn’t want to grow, it’s just they shouldn’t be judged only by growth.”

While often described as what it’s not (urban), and viewed as a monolith, rural America is actually made up of thousand of different communities with their own geography, industries, cultures, and diverse populations, she explained, with populations of anywhere from 100 to 50,000, she said.

Malenshek touched briefly on the history of many of these communities being built with an “outside-in” approach by extractive industries like mining and manufacturing – an approach she explained “left these economies much less resilient.”

Today, by contrast, she said, “New rural development models focus on empowering leaders in those communities, and entrepreneurs develop solutions from the ground up," which "creates more resilient communities.”

“In many ways, rural America is leading culture, defining success as a more fulfilled life. And that’s something many of us are looking for after the great reset of the pandemic," she argued.

“Rural America does not need to be saved,” she added, “In fact, the evolution of rural shows us how the whole country can grow.”

Malenshek described a need for “conveners” to bring communities together, and touched on how Land O’Lakes was employing such an approach through the American Connection Project it formed. A coalition of around 200 companies -- including the Mayo Clinic, Microsoft, and Target -- the project aims to bring broadband equity to underserved populations in the U.S., an issue impacting people in both urban and rural communities

“Millions of Americans go without broadband access every day,” she said, and the realities of life during the pandemic “really showed how critical that was,” impacting everyone from kids unable to log on to complete their homework, to the those unable to access necessary healthcare resources, to businesses -- including the farms that make up Land O’Lakes’ collective -- which found it hard to operate.

The coalition was able to secure funding for such resources through the Biden Administration’s infrastructure bill, she explained,” And we’re in those communities now with boots on the ground making it happen.”

Maleshek ended with a call to the industry to “think about how you’re portraying rural America.”

“We’re in the business of words here, [and] words shape perceptions. So use them wisely” she added. “Become a changemaker for rural vibrancy.”

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