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Extreme Makeover in Farm Country

How the winner of Alberta Venture's corporate rebranding contest created a new personality for itself

Oct 1, 2005

by Phoebe Dey

For Tim and Mike Ross, it feels like a sign. Just weeks after hearing corporate image specialist Ted Kouri of Edmonton-based Incite Solutions give a speech on the benefits of rebranding your company, they spot a brochure in the Camrose Chamber of Commerce promoting Alberta Venture’s corporate rebranding contest. One deserving company will win the services of none other than Incite, along with Dial Printing – valued at $25,000 – for a kind of image makeover.

At first glance their family’s company, Ross Agri Supplies (Camrose) Inc., appears an unlikely candidate. The central Alberta farmers that make up its customer base don’t place too much stock in appearances. But Tim, Mike and their parents, Sheilagh and Rod Ross, sense instinctively that a rebranding exercise could go deeper than ball caps and business cards. They decide to put together a contest entry, complete with a hat and grain scoop bearing the old Ross Agri Supplies (Camrose) Inc. logo, explaining why their company needs a new identity as much as any in the province.

Ever since the agricultural and oilfield services business began an explosive expansion into rural Alberta a few years ago, the family had been grappling with how to position it in the marketplace. Ross Agri was one of a select few firms in western Canada invited to acquire fertilizer locations being unloaded by Imperial Oil Ltd. By creating a partnership with their local Toronto Dominion Bank, Ross Agri was able to obtain long-term, aggressive debt-to-equity financing to orchestrate the acquisition spree.

With the financing in place, they purchased a total of five locations over 18 months, all renamed with such monikers as Ponoka Agri-Supplies or Rimbey Agri-Supplies to reflect the individual communities. Between 2000 and 2004, sales increased from $15 million to $28 million and Rod expects that number to climb to between $30 and $34 million in 2005.

Dollar figures aside, their success, they believe, is largely due to relationships built on trust. They have spent little on advertising. But still, the independent business reselling such big-name products as Esso, Bayer, DuPont and Monsanto, Ross Agri needed help appealing to family values while letting customers know all the locations operate as one.

And so it begins.

The initial push comes from staff members. Senior management hears that workers don’t know if they are Ross Agri, Imperial Agri or Drumheller Agri. “It was as simple as how they should answer the phones,” says Mike. “As for our product, we even had one customer who drove all the way to Ponoka from near Drumheller because he didn’t know we had a store in Drumheller selling the same thing.”

Then comes the congratulatory phone call from Alberta Venture publisher Ruth Kelly last December, telling Ross Agri it has won the rebranding contest. It is just before Christmas and Incite Solutions’ marketing manager, Chris Davey, drives the 130 kilometres to Camrose for the initial meeting with Ross Agri’s management team. He wants to ensure their new brand will match their target market.

“It’s a challenge because their primary market, probably 90%, is farming, and farmers are very particular about where they purchase supplies. They want to support local stores and not big conglomerates, so we have to be sensitive to that,” says Davey.

After a full assessment of the company – including its competition, target market and customer perceptions – Davey and the Rosses buckle down. Where to start? Well, what’s in a name?

The first exercise is to decide whether to keep ‘Ross’ in the business’s name. The family considers taking it out, but the managers insist on keeping what has become a respected name in central Alberta. They do drop a few words, shortening their name from Ross Agri Supplies (Camrose) Inc. to simply Ross Agri. Still acknowledging the local communities, the satellites will be known as Ross Agri (Rimbey) or Ross Agri (Wetaskawin), and so on.

Sheilagh must let the sound of the name roll off her tongue several times before it comes easily. “Does it limit us, does it expand us? It has to be perfect,” she says. The group concludes it’s as perfect as it’s going to get.

The next step is the logo, or lack of one. Considering the old “logo” is a basic font bearing the Ross Agri name and the Esso symbol, they start almost from scratch. Armed with some concrete ideas of his own, Mike volunteers to go to Edmonton and meet with Incite’s graphic designer.

He knows he wants the family farm represented in the logo but is not sure how. Davey suggests icons that might illustrate the farm, but that are not too literal. No tractor or combine, in other words.

Mike keeps going back to fertilizer, the essence of their core business activity. Fertilizer is just a round granule, so they obviously aren’t going to use that. But they want a common symbol for what holds both their product and their customers’ commodity. “What about fertilizer bins?” offers Mike. It seems a natural fit. Rows of swaths are eventually added below three silhouetted bins and after nearly three months and 80 variations (colours, sizes and other details are fine tuned), a new logo is almost born.

They are down to three alternatives and Sheilagh knows they are so close they can taste it. After some final tweaking, she “sees it.” Finally, she feels as if they have captured the heart of what Ross Agri does.

“This process is so inclusive and involved but along the way there are milestones. It’s such a visceral experience – you feel it in the gut. And I didn’t even realize the old logo needed a change.”

She has her eureka moment when she sees the final version on paper. “There it is,” she thinks. “It’s real.”

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