KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A new marketing strategy to revamp the focus and image of the beef industry was presented to National Cattlemen's Beef Association members at the association's annual convention here.
Through what is being called a "brand-like initiative" the Englewood, Colo.-based NCBA has made a commitment to forging a new identity for the beef industry by giving it more of a consumer focus, like that of other branded products.
The high visibility and sales enjoyed by other products with a strong media presence, from poultry to Marlboro cigarettes, convinced the beef industry that it was time for a change in the game plan.
The term brand-like is being used as "a buzzword to get the industry to recognize that we need to be consumer- and not production-driven," said Clark Willingham, a beef producer at Stoney Point AgriCorp, Melissa, Texas, and the NCBA's president-elect. The NCBA's chief executive officer, Chuck Schroeder, likened the transition to "bridging the chasm."
The new directional focus is "an attempt to form a relationship that can be supported in the long haul by consumers+ [thus] creating a link which we desperately need," explained Jens Knutson, vice president of regulatory and industry affairs at the American Meat Institute, Arlington, Va.
In interviews with SN, retailers had mixed reactions to the initiative. Wayne Creel, the meat buyer at Southeast Foods, Monroe, La., said the initiative had merit. Although Al Kober, the meat buyer at Clemens Markets, Kulpsville, Pa., called it "a step in the right direction," he didn't think it would increase beef's market share. Russell Vernon, the owner of West Point Market, Akron, Ohio, praised the fact that producers "are reaching out to help." Brent Olson, the Phoenix-based Fleming Cos. manager of meat operations, noted flatly that "I don't think it'll make a bit of difference."
Another aim of the NCBA's initiative is to give consumers "a product that consistently meets their desires for beef," explained Schroeder.
What specific criteria will be set for quality of participating beef is still under discussion. John Huston, the executive vice president of consumer marketing at the NCBA, declined to comment and Willingham said that a "good example might be the current certified Angus program."
Many retailers said they would remain skeptical until they found out more. West Point Market's Vernon said that "it would have to meet our criteria for beef . . . we [already] have an inferred seal of quality because it's in our case."
Southeast Foods' Creel doubted anyone's ability to provide a consistent supply of beef in that "it's not made in factories." And Fleming's Olsen asserted that he thought that the quality of beef he is receiving was already consistent.
"Whether it helps will depend on the kind of perceived value they create with it," said Clemens' Kober, hitting upon another of the NCBA's initiative's stated goals, what the NCBA's Huston referred to as the "added value" of beef. "We are looking for consumer value-added characteristics . . . that will increase the probability of a great beef experience," Huston offered in lieu of a more detailed explanation of the NCBA's plans for fulfilling the initiative's goals for value-added.
One way of increasing perceived consumer value, and lessening confusion at the meat case, might be to put recipes on beef packages, said Nancy Pellett, an Iowa-based farmer and feeder. "In the eyes of the consumer, we don't have a convenient product.
They don't know what to do with it," she explained.
"Perhaps we even need to put it in strips and marinate it so it meets their needs," continued Pellett, focusing on another of the initiative's stated goals: increasing product variety.
"The beef industry is woefully behind," noted Willingham. "If you look at a meat case [you'll see] it hasn't changed in 20 years," he said.
"The objective is to get everyone in the supply chain focused on consumers and offering what they want in terms of convenience, value and information," said the NCBA'S executive director of channel marketing, Kevin Yost.
The NCBA's Huston noted that "we don't think that we have done as good a job as we need to in fitting our products into today's lifestyle." He stressed the importance of getting the product to fit consumers' needs and making beef competitive as part of the home-meal replacement trend.
Clemens' Kober agreed the beef industry "had very few products that are consumer-ready or consumer-focused. Their approach in the past has been 'Here's what we got, take it or leave it.' "
Fleming's Olsen concurred that he didn't "see a lot of beef in meal replacement and . . . I think that beef is behind pork and poultry in terms of marinated and ready-to-cook."
Once the brand-like initiative is operative, the NCBA plans to identify participating beef with a mark. "I think it will be some variation of the little red beef check that we are using today," said Willingham.
The NCBA's Yost said that the logo "is definitely going to have the word beef in it," because it's a draw. And possible brand names, such as Beef USA, are also under discussion.
The farmer-feeder Pellett likened the mark to a quality seal. The NCBA's Huston said such a seal would be given as "a reward for value-added products that follow certain practices and programs." Retailers, according to the NCBA's Yost, would have to qualify to use it.
The mark would not replace other brands but be placed on the package along with them. "We don't want to supplant current brands," Yost affirmed.
"A branded product simply sells better and we are trying to relate that initiative to beef," said Pellett.
Fleming's Olsen concurred that "I think that the consumer perceives brands as a guarantee of higher quality," and expressed his belief that "brands sell better because of recognition," often gained from advertising. And the brand initiative "has the potential to establish an identity . . . that can be supported through an ad campaign," said the AMI's Knutson.
It may be close to a year before brand-like beef is made available. "I would hope to see it nationally by the end of the year," said the NCBA President-elect Willingham. "We are looking to have the mark established by the end of July," he concluded.
Brand-like beef is also likely to cost more. The NCBA's Huston declined to be specific, simply stating that if there's "added value it costs more." Clemens' Kober estimated that if it followed the pattern of certified Angus the additional cost to the retailer "could be as low as two cents more a pound for chucks and rounds, and a higher wholesale premium of $1 to $2 a pound more for loins and ribs."
The retail jury was out as to whether consumers would stomach these higher prices. Southeast Foods' Creel said that he didn't think consumers would be willing to pay more. Fleming's Olsen noted that "there are a lot of other programs out there." And Clemens' Kober concluded that whether they will be willing to spend more depends on how well the NCBA markets it.
"This is niche marketing like all-natural or Angus," said Kober, who expressed his belief that it wouldn't change beef's status as a commodity.
Although Kober said he couldn't see "all of the retailers jumping on it," he thought that the initiative was "a tool for a retailer who wants to be different." And West Point Market's Vernon saw it as an opportunity to provide chains with "a quality mark that could help sales."
The NCBA has set what Huston calls some "very ambitious and aggressive" long-term goals for its brand-like initiative. Specific one- and three-year goals, according to NCBA's Schroeder's closing statement, are slated to "move us toward our 10-year goal -- that 50% of the beef sold in the United States carries our beef mark."