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In Marketing Beef, We Shouldn’t Shoot Into The Middle

In Marketing Beef, We Shouldn’t Shoot Into The Middle

In a free-enterprise system like America’s, people are going to market in whatever manner they determine to be the most advantageous to them. I don’t necessarily always agree with that, but I don’t want government or industry regulating how products should be marketed.

I also understand, however, that certain claims may need to be accurately defined so that consumers aren’t misled. But beyond that, I think marketers should be free to market, and consumers free to buy, whatever products they desire. That’s true whether we’re talking natural, organic, grass-fed, born in the U.S.A., hormone- or antibiotic-free, lean, or branded by breed of cattle.

Every marketer in the world will tell you that the actual benefits of a product, and its perceived benefits, aren’t necessarily the same thing. Many will also tell you that the perceived benefits are the only things that matter.

From a morality standpoint, few people want to, or start out with the goal of, marketing smoke and mirrors. A cynic once told me that the hundreds of billions of dollars spent each year on product improvement are driven more by avoiding exposure from the competition than because of the drive to be consumer-focused. I don’t believe that, but I suppose that motivation is irrelevant in some ways.

For instance, there a few in our industry who are solely focused on margins, and really aren’t that concerned about the product they produce. But I could argue even those individuals fulfill a role; and they’re really only a problem when our marketing system is too inefficient to properly identify their products. That is, it’s a problem when this inferior product gets marketed alongside mainstream product and creates an unsatisfactory eating experience that tarnishes the reputation of all beef products.

But here’s the dilemma that our industry wrestles with, and makes us different than just about any other industry I know of. The first is that there are a host of factors that actually exist in an effort to destroy us. Our detractors have attacked us nutritionally, based on environmental impact, on animal welfare fronts, and the list goes on. These attacks aren’t based on sound science, but they have been marketed effectively by our detractors.

There actually are subsets of consumers who believe our product is tainted with hormones or antibiotics, and that organic or natural products are healthier. They carry in their minds images of corporate farming, animal welfare abuse, and environmental havoc that they believe our industry creates. Some believe our product is inherently unhealthy and is the cause of everything from obesity and heart disease to cancer. And all of those subsets have created opportunities for marketers, who have happily stepped in to fill the gaps.

Exploiting weaknesses is nothing new, as free enterprise is an ultra-competitive environment that is commonly referred to as war. The problem is that these products are going to war against the industry in general and not against another competitor per se.

Lexus can go after Mercedes, AT&T after Verizon, Samsung after Apple, or Burger King after McDonald’s, but such advertising doesn’t actually attack the consumer segments of luxury cars, cell phones or fast-food hamburgers in the process. But, since the majority of beef product is sold on a commodity basis, those products that look to capitalize on negative and invalid consumer perceptions end up reinforcing them and hurting the industry in the process.

Taste and price may be the big drivers, but few have tried to differentiate themselves on those types of premises. For one thing, it’s expensive and it requires far more effort. The exploitative attacks being made on our industry are ready-made and common sense from a business standpoint.

If Ford were spreading lies about GM, GM would simply respond in full force to expose the lies and thereby harm Ford’s credibility. In the beef industry, however, we don’t have the means to adequately address these perceptions. We attempt to address the attacks from outside, but we are fully and wholly defenseless in addressing the attacks from within.

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I recently had a conversation with a very well-educated and intelligent urban consumer. She had just returned from a trip to Hawaii where she had had a fabulous grass-fed burger from the Parker Ranch, which is located on the big island. She was wondering where she could get that type of product on the mainland.

The conversation shifted and we began to talk about our product in general. Every time I have one of these conversations, I become immensely thankful for the checkoff and all its efforts. I’m also amazed at just how badly I understand the mindset of many consumers, who just want to do what is right for their families, their bodies, and the world. Yet despite our industry’s efforts to tell our story, many consumers still believe they must avoid mainstream commodity beef.

I’m going to stop now, because I have a yearling bull that failed his breeding soundness exam, and I need to write an ad for our local paper. I think I’ll word it this way:

“All natural, organically raised, hormone and antibiotic-free registered Angus beef; born, raised and processed in the U.S.; corn fed with corn raised by local family farmers and raised with love from a family operation that is constantly under attack from the multi-national conglomerate food giants; priced high, but worth every penny, if you love the land, the environment or America.”

Okay, I might write the copy a little differently than that, but the implications of such claims are implicit if not explicit.  


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