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SpiritWood: Marketing and Branding Tribal Forest Products

Tina Hagedorn
1/26/12

This is the first in a three-part series that discusses the opportunity to brand and market tribal forest products. Historically, tribal forest products have generally been sold as commodities with little branding to distinguish or differentiate them from non-tribal products. Read part two here.

No matter the method, your brand says this is who you are, this is what you do and how you do it, and, perhaps most important of all, this is what you stand for. Stripped to its core, your brand is a window on your soul.

Many Americans have not visited an Indian reservation with the exception of casino vacations. Beyond tribal gaming and entertainment venues there is an appreciable sum of natural resources under tribal stewardship. There are over 565 recognized tribes, many offering abundant cultural and natural resources such as timber, plants, foods, art and medicines. Reservations encompass a total of approximately 56 million acres of trust land. Over 200 reservations in the continental United States are forested, containing more than 7.7 million acres of timberland and another 10.2 million acres of woodlands. In addition there are 44 million acres of Alaska native lands. Domestic and international businesses are looking to tap into these plentiful native resources and products. Marketing alliances are being established to bridge the gap between tribal and mainstream business to market tribal forest products to retail chain distributors and other potential purchasers to improve economic and socioeconomic conditions on reservations.

SpiritWood is one of several generic brands under consideration by the Intertribal Timber Council (ITC) to help distinguish tribal forest products in the marketplace. The ITC has over 60 member tribes and works cooperatively with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), private industry, and academia to explore issues and identify practical strategies and initiatives that promote social, economic and ecological values. The development of a tribal forest products brand like SpiritWood is part of a strategy recommended in a one year study completed for the ITC by industry specialists.

A compelling element of the SpiritWood marketing strategy is that tribes are the only group in America that can sell substantial sustained volumes of tribal forest products from permanent land bases. Large retailers have green product and vendor diversity portfolios goals and many tribes do not have the infrastructure needed to fill large volume orders. The SpiritWood brand would allow tribes to jointly supply timber products to the market place. SpiritWood would be an ideal fit for retail chain corporate policies and objectives related to diversity and environmental stewardship. Indian forests constitute the only abundant “minority” wood source that corporate America can tap for these demands. SpiritWood would address the challenge that large volume retailers cannot do business with the federal government, to whom they sell billions of dollars worth of product, unless they also do business with “minorities”. This demonstrates, the need for tribal timber products to supply chain retailers such as Lowe’s, Home Depot, 84 Lumber and Menards.

The manner of distribution is under discussion by the ITC, including an intertribal association or cooperative through which individual enterprises could sell their products. Regardless the center theme would be based upon modern tribal management of natural resources which is guided by traditional wisdom accumulated through millennia. The result is a unique and enduring model for stewardship and adaptive management.

There is a state of economic emergency on reservations. Depressed markets for forest products have led to the loss of economic and employment opportunities. The timber crisis adds to suffering already being experienced in Indian Country as a result of the current economic downturn. Many tribes with timber and marketable products want to improve their economies by increasing local employment and revenue. As a result, tribes are working together to tell their story and generate demand for their products.

SpiritWood is needed in Indian country. Native American reservations are among the poorest communities in the United States. In 2012 there are reservations communities that do not have basic needs like food, running water or electricity. Tribal marketing and branding can help to reduce unemployment on reservations which is often over five times the national average. Tribes and the ITC are committed to building economic opportunity, business skill training and leadership development to revitalize economies and communities.

Tribal resource management and stewardship have been acknowledged as models of sustainability, but are not currently rewarded in the marketplace. In its recently completed branding and marketing Study, the ITC recommended that branding and marketing be viewed as part of a larger strategy to increase recognition and influence of tribal resource management. SpiritWood is an opportunity to increase awareness of Indian resource management based upon a unique integration that sustains tribal communities while providing many public benefits and ecosystem services. However, these important considerations are not recognized or rewarded in the marketplace. SpiritWood is an opportunity to challenge that disconnect and differentiate tribal products in the marketplace. However, while the Indian story has intrinsic appeal, investments in new initiatives are required to inform the marketplace, increase market recognition, and improve revenue streams. The capacity to earn higher revenues will be critical to the ability to continue management practices so as to sustain economic and ecological benefits over the long term for both Native American business and Native American people.

Tina Hagedorn has worked extensively throughout the United States for Native American tribes at Wesley Rickard, Incorporated where she provides strategy, management, policy and economics consulting. Clients include Indian Tribes, Native Corporations, public agencies, profit companies, nonprofit companies, government and public entities, associations, individuals and other private groups located throughout the United States and in Canada.

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