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Talis Tisenkopfs, Anda Adamsone-Fiskovica, Emils Kilis, Sandra Šūmane

Topic: Social Innovation and Learning in Direct Marketing

Keywords: Social innovation, Retro-innovation, Learning, Direct marketing


Introduction: In this paper, we explore retro-innovation of direct marketing as applied in the domain of agricultural goods, and the accompanying processes of learning that influence the nature, scope, and spread of these practices. We explore retro-innovation as a social innovation meaning that it offers systemic social change in the dominant conventional food chains – their configuration, relationships and values. Based on the conceptualisation of social innovation as pertaining to innovative collaboration models and practices and novel partnerships between individuals and/or organisations aimed at meeting social needs the paper analyses social innovations as improvements in human interaction, and we refer to learning as a multi-actor and multi-directional exchange of knowledge. The focus on learning helps to understand how social innovation is shaped by multiple forms and sources of knowledge. Social innovation might happen in a non-teleological way, i.e. its outcomes often are not intended from the beginning and innovation unfolds in a constructivist way as through evolution of relationships and values. Time is an important dimension in any innovation, but the case of direct marketing as a retro-innovation gives this aspect a particular relevance. The prolonged historical evolution and transformations of this practice over the last 20-30 years allows to view it in an extended time-frame. Subsequently, we identify varied institutional set-ups for exploring the cumulative nature of social innovation, i.e. building-up and change in relationships and values.

Methods: Our analysis is based on a case study of direct marketing in agriculture carried out within the framework of the H2020 project AgriLink. The data was collected during 30 semi-structured interviews carried out in 2018-2019 with farmers engaged in direct marketing in Latvia. In addition, five expert interviews have been conducted with specialists from agricultural advisory services and consultants from private companies and NGOs who provide knowledge support to farmers in this specific domain. The primary case study area is Pierīga region.

Findings: Our study has several findings:

  • There is a great diversity of both established and novel forms of direct marketing (farmer markets, on-farm sales, supplies to workplaces and neighbourhoods in cities, marketing via the internet and social media, direct purchasing groups, coordinated box schemes, selling through personal social networks, and other). Farmers combine these forms to develop marketing and business models which best fit the farm’s profile. The farmers’ effort in combining different forms of direct marketing is made through the processes of learning-by-doing, peer-to-peer learning, experimentation, and introduction of (retro)innovations, or returning to old/traditional practices in new social contexts. Routinisation of these selected forms and their combinations leads to the establishment of particular composite arrangements of direct marketing (e.g. internet sales to distant consumers & on-farm sales to dedicated local customers).
  • Every individual form and the chosen arrangement of direct marketing requires specific knowledge which is gained from a variety of internal and external as well as formal and informal sources historical, personal and social sources.
  • Retro-innovation is based on specific pool of knowledge. Intergenerational learning from parents, grandparents, extended family members and farmer-to-farmer learning dominate in retro-innovation. In the meantime, new social context of practices mean that farmers learn also in relationships with consumers and other market actors.
  • Despite implicit demand for knowledge to support retro and social innovation in direct marketing, there is practically no proactive, ready-made and tailored advisory services available from the formal agricultural knowledge and innovation system (advisory services, universities, research institutes, agricultural colleges, etc.). This deficit is being compensated by intensive informal learning.
  • In the meantime, novel forms of advice emerge at the interface between farmers, consumers, small processors, civic food activists, organisers of short food supply chains and other parties who, in addition to new technical forms of marketing or organisation of the supply chain (e.g. marketing apps, mutual certification), also introduce a novel set of values to be communicated in the food system, such as healthy diets, trust in food, and social responsibility.
  • There is a need for much stronger facilitation and knowledge brokering in direct marketing to enable farmers to effectively assess and make appropriate use of the best-fit forms and arrangements in building new partnerships for both private and public This represents a whole new niche and opportunity for advisory services and organisational assistance to farmers and civic food networks engaged in direct marketing, for example – to organise training, assist farmers to set up collective internet marketing platforms. In particular, the skills of farmers could be strengthened to support their efficiency in and contribution to short value chains. Consumers also often lack knowledge and organisational support to coordinate their interaction with producers.
  • Digitalisation of direct marketing is a growing trend. Use of social media and individual and collective internet platforms among farmers to market their produce is growing. The digital means ease communication and access to new, often distant groups of consumers, notably – the younger generation, urban middle-class, and the health-conscious individuals. Digitalisation in direct marketing allows to accelerate the penetration of the new value sets in food production and consumption, including health-, nutrition- and wellbeing-related ones. The spread of digital marketing is supported by improvements in physical infrastructure (roads) and communication services (mobile postal and parcel services).

Discussion: Social innovation in direct marketing develops gradually and often unexpectedly links producers and consumers through novel or redesigned social relations, new meanings of food, or improved and sustainable production and consumption practices. However, social innovation could bring about more beneficial results in terms of individual and community wellbeing around food, had it been more facilitated and supported by advice. This is a potential niche for both old and new advisory services. Retro-innovation can be empowered by social innovation and it is a resource towards food systems sustainability, in particular in the segment of small and medium-size farms and small food producers.

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