'Think Different': 5 Ways to Reimagine Seed Launches, Apple Style

04/05/2016 03:16 pm ET Updated Apr 06, 2017

By Edward Mabaya

Recently, I watched the Apple's launch event at which CEO Tim Cook and his colleagues introduced the company's new products to the world. With much fanfare and hype, Apple unveiled a small new iPhone, a new iPad Pro tablet for business use, and a $50 price reduction for the Apple Watch.

So basically updates of existing products. Nothing was announced that will change people's lives in any meaningful way. Yet, millions of people like me were interested enough to watch the entire event.

Getting people excited about marginal gains in technology has become an art form at Apple. As an African economist focused on how to get better seeds to Africa's family farmers (and also someone who clearly loves Apple products) I am trying to learn from Apple.

Over the past two decades, I have seen amazing agricultural innovations, many of them involving seed for new varieties of maize, wheat, cassava and other food crops that have the potential to transform millions of lives. In many parts of Africa, these seeds--bred by scientists to tolerate drought or withstand a certain crop diseases--could actually mean the difference between hunger and plenty. And yet, most of these technologies never even reach farmer's ears, let alone their fields.

There is of course a vast difference between cell phones and seed. But from Apple's launch events I have learned five key marketing lessons that could drastically improve awareness and adoption of better seed varieties by farmers across Africa.

1. Launch multiple products at the same time

Most agricultural research centers--the institutions responsible for coming up with new seed varieties--release new seeds throughout the year as soon as they clear the requisite science and bureaucratic processes. This 'salami slice' approach to product launch does not attract much media or farmer interest. By contrast, Apple only has two launch events every year and several new products are featured in each. By rolling out multiple products at once, Apple generates a synergistic WOW. It also showcases how all the new products are related. Imagine how much attention would be generated if every country dedicated one annual event to introducing array of new products developed for farmers.

2. It's about the product, not the process

We can all agree that the science that goes into the research and development of Apple products is cutting-edge stuff. Yet, Apple events focus on the products, not the behind-the-scenes look of how they where developed. In contrast, during the launch of agricultural products, the innovation is often obscured by the technical 'how stuff is made' talk. This is what happens when you rely on plant breeders and scientists to do your marketing - they showcase the science. Next time, leave this technical stuff to the peer-reviewed journals and focus on the products--the seeds.. Take for example, a popular maize variety grown in Western Kenya that was bred by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center to offer high yields, tolerance of low nitrogen soils, and resistance to breakage of the stalk below the cob. Its official name: WH502, which is probably based on some scientific nomenclature. It could be a much more memorable crop variety, and perhaps more widely adopted, if it carried a market-friendly name such as "Hunger Buster" or its equivalent in local languages. We need to do a better job of presenting our seed products with language farmers understand because it immediately connects with the challenges they face.

3. Talk to the final consumer
Apple has only one audience in mind at their launch events - the final consumer who will buy their product. Everything that is said and done at their launch is addressed to me, the consumer. By contrast, agricultural research institutions seem primarily to be talking to their funders, be they local governments or external donors. Their launch events feature photo ops for politicians, bureaucrats, and program officers from funding agencies. Rarely do I see any farmers featured on the stage. It is time to stop preaching to the choir; take this gospel to farmers' fields.

4. Match the problem to a solution

I did not know that my iPhone 5 was too thick until Apple showed me the 0.6 mm thinner iPhone 6, which would save me precious pocket space. While this is a laughable marketing gimmick, it illustrates a clever concept: always present the problem before the solution. In launching new agricultural innovations, more time and effort should be spent reminding farmers of the problem. A new bean variety that is resistant to root rot looks more impressive when it is juxtaposed to its diseased cousin.

5. When and where can I get it?
No launch event for Apple is complete until they tell consumers when, where, and at what cost the new products will become available. This is more impressive than it appears at face value. It tells you that Apple has already figured out the entire supply chain before launch time. They are not just discussing a prototype. If you ever dare to ask "where can I get this?" at a launch event for agricultural innovations, you will be answered by blank stares. In most cases, no one even knows if these technologies will ever be commercially available, let alone when, where, and for how much. Consequently, whatever little excitement might be generated about new seed varieties quickly vanishes. Farmers are not dreamers. They want seeds that are available at their local farmer supply store at an affordable price and before the first rains.

Awareness is the first and most critical step in generating demand. This is as true for cool gizmos as it is for farm inputs. No one will buy a product unless they are aware of it. Apple realizes this simple fact, which is why they invest millions of dollars in launch events and advertising.

I know that the seed world is much more complicated, with multiple research, production, and distribution partners. However, most agricultural innovations, especially those targeting smallholder farmers, are only planned as far the release phase. So much hard work and brain-power devoted to developing the seed, but then little consideration for how they will reach the farmers. Instead of flying off the retail shelves, most seed varieties today remain on laboratory shelves. Instead of sales figures, they only generate progress reports and journal publications.

We need to start thinking like Apple and develop launch events as key marketing strategies, where agricultural research organizations can partner with distributors to generate excitement and demand for their products. Imagine a world in which smallholder farmers share photos of the latest new maize or bean variety. Maybe they won't be camping out overnight in front of the agro-dealer to be first in line for the seeds. But a fresh, new approach to product launches could go a long way toward making agricultural innovations as common for farmers in Africa as, well, the mobile phone.

Edward Mabaya is an agricultural economist and Associate Director of the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture & Development. He is a 2016 Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @edmabaya.