How One Farm Created a Michelin-Grade Influencer Marketing Campaign

Developing an influencer marketing campaign has brought family-owned Autumn Olive Farms into the restaurants of renowned chefs.
October 31, 2016

In mid-October, the Michelin Guide rated Washington, DC-area restaurants for the first time. Twelve won stars, and half of those buy their pork from Autumn Olive Farms, a small family-owned farm in Waynesboro, Virginia. For Autumn Olive Farms, this wasn't accidental, or even luck. It was the successful result of a carefully planned out influencer marketing campaign.

“Our focus is on chefs and restaurants,” says Clay Trainum, who founded Autumn Olive Farms alongside his wife Linda. “We didn't have the manpower to do farmers markets and retail. We wanted to be here at the farm developing our genetics and our product.” Rather than selling to chefs who might not understand the value of his high-quality, heritage breed product, Trainum decided to build an influencer marketing campaign. This way Autumn Olive Farms could focus on those who already appreciated quality, and then let word of mouth spread from those trendsetters.

Trainum's process for identifying and reaching key influencers with an influencer marketing campaign started with developing a deep understanding of his target customer.

Find the right influencers.

To get started with Autumn Olive Farms's influencer marketing campaign, the Trainums studied lists of top restaurants published in DC-area magazines and newspapers. They created a spreadsheet of about a hundred restaurants and then started researching each one. The couple gathered information online about the chefs and their history, background, previous restaurants and menu prices.

If they're not successful with our products, then we aren't successful. It's a very intimate relationship.

—Clay Trainum, co-founder, Autumn Olive Farms

“We were looking for compatibility and menu price points that would match the fact that our products are never going to be inexpensive,” Trainum says. “It made sense to sit at home and do that leg work versus driving to DC to stay in hotels and hoof it up and down the streets.” That information helped them narrow the list to the best candidates.

Know the customer.

“I didn't know anything about chefs,” Trainum admits. But he had a neighbor who had worked as a chef, so he reached out to him for information. “He helped me understand the culture, schedules, preferences and terminology,” Trainum says. “I wanted to do this correctly and professionally, and there are certain protocols in the kitchen that I needed to know.”

For example, Trainum learned to call chefs “Chef” or “Chef Danny” instead of simply “Danny.” And he discovered the best times of day to call restaurants. (It depends on whether they serve both lunch and dinner, or dinner only.)

Sell on their terms.

Trainum understood that chefs are very busy, and often distracted, so it is usually difficult to have their full attention for any length of time. Once he started visiting restaurants, Trainum quickly discovered that sometimes he would only have a few minutes of face time—not an ideal setting for a sales pitch. So, he adapted.

“We bought an expensive vacuum packer to put together a sample package,” Trainum says. “We packaged loin, belly [and] other cuts that would give a very attractive visual appearance and reflect the quality of the product.”

Playing off the stereotype of chef's brashness, Trainum would walk confidently through the back door to the kitchen, ask for the chef and drop off a sample package for them to try. “It was a very arrogant thing to do, and they loved that,” he says.

Elevate customer service.

When selling to the top end of any market, having exceptional customer service doesn't hurt. Autumn Olive Farms understood this from day one. If any chef has any problem with product, Trainum says his policy is, “You tell us what this has cost you and we'll issue a credit for that amount.” It's an open invitation, he says, for Autumn Olive Farms to cover the cost of product, labor and lost business.

“We've only had to do this maybe six to eight times in 10 years,” Trainum says. “Nobody has ever abused it.”

In fact, Trainum has had customers tell him to simply replace the product without any additional credit. He and Linda drove from Waynesboro to DC to make the delivery that same day.

Build a true partnership.

By developing such a deep understanding of his top customers with his influencer marketing campaign, Trainum has also learned important ways to tweak his product for them. For example, when chefs asked for higher meat yields with slightly less fat, Trainum developed a cross-breed pig especially for that market.

“If they're not successful with our products, then we aren't successful,” he says. “It's a very intimate relationship.”

That close partnership works both ways. This past spring, when Autumn Olive Farms lost litters of piglets to bad weather and predators, customers didn't fret over the dwindling supply of pork. Rather than demand priority delivery of their preferred cuts, many of Trainum's Michelin-starred chefs told him, “Just bring us the cuts you need to bring us and we'll make it work.”

Trainum is quick to credit his customers, praising them for dedication, hard work, long hours and appreciation of quality. But the truth is that he works the same way—and that work ethic has helped laid the groundwork to build valuable trust among his key influencers for long-term success.

Read more articles on getting customers.

Photo: iStock