If farmers want to sell more beef, it would pay dividends to revamp how we talk about the product to consumers.
Mary Lou Quinlan (right) is founder of "Just Ask a Woman," a leading U.S. women's marketing company that has interviewed over 20,000 women of every income and age level. This organization knows how women shop, connect, eat, and, most important, how they buy food for themselves and their families.
Her newest book, What she's not telling you: why women hide the whole truth and what marketers can do about it (Greenleaf Book Group 2010) is all about how women really behave and believe when it comes to their day to day lives as consumers. When it comes to buying food, attitudes go far beyond just price and convenience. Some people are downright resentful over the choices they have in the supermarket.
Half truths What Quinlan's group has discovered is that there are a lot of half truths out there when it comes to buying food. For example, the idea that more information creates a more informed consumer is a half truth. "The whole truth is, marketing, labeling and retail messages are confusing," says Quinlan. "They are mixed and not creating clarity."
Confusion reigns in part because the media is the consumers' teacher, but consumers don't always believe the stories they read or hear in the media.
Labels are confusing. Words like organic sound appealing because they are guilt free - you don't have to feel guilty for what you're serving, says Quinlan. "The word organic is a catch all for other words like 'sustainable' and 'green,' which is appealing to the eye," she says. But 'green' is another half truth. Consumers are 'greenish;' one out of every two consumers say that it's important that products they buy are made from an all natural ingredient, but 39% of non-organic buyers say they're skeptical about organic.
Shoppers are afraid of the unknown when it comes to buying beef. A lot of organic or special interest groups want to sway consumers in what they buy, so they put out messages that imply danger from beef that is grown through conventional means. Consumers are confused, but they're not stupid and they're trying to figure out what the heck's going on.
"The mixed messages leave many consumers skeptical that there is any threat related to what they buy," says Quinlan. "Those on the fence want to know, 'who benefits?' Many of those surveyed said as long as things like feed supplements have been proven safe, they have no issues with eating 'conventionally grown' beef."
Dinner table hijack Several consumers say they want to keep costs down when buying beef, but the whole truth is, no one wants to feel they can only afford the cheapest beef. "To a consumer, less cost shouldn't mean a lesser product," says Quinlan. "There's resentment among consumers who feel that, just because they buy so called 'conventional food' doesn't mean they only do so because they can't afford the more pricey organic food. There's a resentment of 'dinner table hijack' – someone else is taking over my dinner table and telling me what to feed my children."
They may choose what's on sale and shop on value and simply don't believe the organic hype, she adds.
Shoppers wish their beef still came from the idealistic family cattle farm. The California Milk Advisory Board has done an outstanding job capitalizing on this consumer desire with their Real California Milk ad campaign.
On better terms What we need to do is shift the focus and tell the story of beef in a shopper-friendly way. Replace terms like 'additives' with 'supplements'; change 'cheap beef' to 'lean, healthy variety.' And instead of 'organic' as the enemy, use 'freedom of choice' as the hero.
Instead of 'conventional beef,' use 'traditional beef' and 'best practices.'
"Re-labeling can restore the emotional high ground to 'conventional beef,'" says Quinlan. "You can say, 'This beef process has been perfected over the years.' Why not capitalize on that? It links to family dinners, grandma's cooking and our heritage."
Consumers want to connect with the emotional pillars of traditional beef. The first is trust - trust with the cattle farmer families as human beings. The second is safety; beef is domestically produced, which allows for better safeguards and accountability; third is freedom of choice; the enemy isn't organic, the enemy is anyone who takes away the shoppers' freedom of choice and family authority.
The overall theme is, 'beef you can count on.'
When presented with this concept, people related to patriotism and freedom of choice. When Quinlan presents the concept to shoppers, they talked about beef that must come from a clean farm and animals raised to best industry standards…raised by very strict guidelines… with no risk to consumers. "I trust the ranchers," one woman said. "I feel empowered," said another. "You're eating, you're comfortable, you're happy."
That sounds like a winning way to market beef. The challenge is, can we do it?