National 4-H Council CMO Aims To Grow Iconic Brand’s Focus

Key to CMO Artis Stevens’ marketing strategy: encouraging 4-H’s 25 million alumni group to speak out as brand ambassadors.

National 4-H Council CMO Aims To Grow Iconic Brand’s Focus

This spring the National 4-H Council kicked off a national brand campaign aimed at updating its image from one associated chiefly with farming and agriculture to one that fosters STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education and leadership training for youth, reaching urban and suburban as well as rural communities.

Leading the effort is Artis Stevens, 4-H’s SVP and chief marketing officer. Before joining 4-H in 2014, Stevens served as national VP, marketing, strategy, and operations at Boys & Girls Clubs of America. recently caught up with Stevens to discuss the ongoing “Grow True Leaders” campaign and 4-H. For anyone who’s not familiar, can you briefly describe how 4-H is structured?

Stevens: At the local community you have a 4-H agent. They work through local universities—Cornell, for example, in the state of New York—and service each county in the state. The agents work in community centers, after-school programs, and schools. Over a quarter of our programs are served in schools.

We’re one of the largest providers of summer programs in the country through our summer camps. We also run what we call group clubs. Kids join as groups, with parents as volunteer staff members, and take on particular group projects—photo clubs and robotics clubs, for example, but all connected based on leadership and life skill training. Was launching a major brand campaign already on the horizon when you joined 4-H two years ago as its first CMO?

Stevens: What 4-H was doing in establishing this position was to bring together its various properties, channels, and different communications under one roof. So part of my job, among many other things, was to start aligning the different businesses that we have—e-commerce, a hotel conference center, as well as the traditional work we’re doing building our brand and generating revenue and resources. What was the impetus behind the campaign?

Stevens: 4-H is a 100-year-old, historical, iconic brand. However the perception of it was very narrow, very focused on agriculture and rural. That’s a very core aspect of what we do, but there’s so much more. Part of my job was to help to broaden the perception of what 4-H is all about. One of the key ways of doing that was the launch of a new, comprehensive brand campaign to refresh our image and our communications to engage our audiences. What don’t people know about 4-H that you wanted to promote?

Stevens: 4-H talks about agriculture in its founding but it has since grown to include everything from agriculture to kids who do STEM, robotics, rocketry, healthy living programs, and good citizenship programs. But at the root of all those different things that we do is the sense of young people and their leadership skills. That’s what the founding was about, and that’s what our programs build right now. They build skills to lead today and tomorrow through these different areas.

CMO: When did tactual planning for the campaign begin?

Stevens: Pretty much as soon as I started. My first entrée to 4-H was actually a listening tour across a number of our stakeholders. We have a pretty unique delivery system of 110 universities and local offices servicing every county in America. So part of my goal when we started with the campaign was really listening to those stakeholders—what was it about 4-H they thought was special and important? The programs, the mission, how it was delivered? We started down that road. What kind of feedback did you get?

Stevens: The feedback I got was all over the place. What was similar in every single conversation I had was just about the people and the passion they have for this brand. The other thing I started to see—whether it was someone raising a goat in Iowa, or building a robotics program in California, or doing hydroponics in New York City—was not necessarily about the program but this young person who was empowered, self-directed. We position young people with these skills so that they lead. What did learn from formal consumer surveys you conducted about 4-H?

Stevens: One of the things we got back was the power of our alums. We have an estimated 25 million alumni in the marketplace. So we saw things like they had a 96% favorability of 4-H. We had a 55-plus Net Promoter Score, so we knew not only did they have a passion for 4-H, but they were also interested in spreading the word about the brand to others.

But what we also saw was that they were not as informed about 4-H or didn’t feel as connected to 4-H today. And a large part of that was because many of them have moved to [suburban or urban] locations where they didn’t see 4-H as much or didn’t see it in the media from a marketplace perspective.

So we said if we can leverage that 25 million alum group, that group could help us not only engage them from the standpoint of volunteering, donation, and services, but also to be able to speak out as ambassadors to share what 4-H does. Had 4-H actively maintained an alumni database over the years?

Stevens: No, it was a small and insignificant database. We started with about 9,000 people in our [National 4-H Council] database. We’ve grown that to about 60,000 in a year-and-a-half. Through the outreach of this campaign, we have a goal of 25% growth this year, and at last count we’ve seen 38% growth from year to year.

Our goal is over the next 10 years is to be able to engage a million of our alums, to have people who are actively engaged through donations, advocacy of the brand, their social channels, media, or volunteering.

Ever the next 10 years [we also want] to grow from six to 10 million kids. To be able to do that, we have to get people to understand who we are, the relevance, and more people to support our cause. So that was really the imperative of this campaign. Can you briefly highlight some of the campaign’s key elements?

Stevens: We wanted this to be a truly integrated campaign, so what we did was use several key components. One was a national media campaign. We used a pro-bono relationship with Dailey Advertising to kick off and develop this campaign across the board—creative, outdoor, print, TV broadcast, radio, and digital. Dailey provided more than $1.5 million in pro-bono time toward development of the campaign.

Those assets are being distributed through a host of media partners that we brought on board. Comcast was one of the early signature partners that donated PSA inventory nationwide. Bloomberg, AOL, Country Music Television—we’re at close to $2.2 million worth of media value provided. What about harnessing social media?

Stevens: That was a leading driver of how we wanted to communicate what we were doing. We launched a social media campaign called “Shout Outs/True Leaders,” which is essentially for adults to shout out about young people in their communities who are making a difference. Our goal was 100,000 Shout Outs in the first couple of months, and we reached 90,000 in just two weeks.

We’ll be starting a matching part of that campaign, moving into graduation season, where a corporate partner will match each Shout Out given with a financial donation as well. If the campaign isn’t aimed directly at kids, who’s the target audience?

Stevens: Within 4-H alums, we looked at who provided the greatest opportunity for activation of media investment, who are more likely to give us time, talent, and money, as well as who could be an advocate and voice for the brand. We segmented that down to 25- to 54-year-old moms with school-age kids. As part of this effort, did you consider updating any of 4-H’s traditional branding, like the clover leaf logo, to reflect underlying changes?

Stevens: We wanted to keep that as a touchstone. It has so much equity, particularly for the audiences we’re connecting with. One of the strongest indicators we saw in our research was the connection to the clover leaf and the [green] color of 4-H. So we felt like we had a good cornerstone in our imagery. What we needed to do was to show it and reflect it in more modernized ways in terms of the creative we used and the diversity 4-H is truly about.