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“Consumers, especially the moms of the country,
are smart,” says market researcher Tracy Chapman.
“They’re trying to make the best decisions while
under the pressure of time and stress, opinions of
friends and the media, and, of course, a challenging economy….
The beef industry, we believe, owes it to their
most powerful customer, the American mom,
to ease the way to the choices she wants to make, and
to never hijack her dinner table with agendas that aren’t hers.”

Women influence 85 percent of buying decisions, and are especially influential
in meal choices. Intervet/Schering-Plough Animal Health and marketing company
Just Ask A Woman discovered that this vast segment of consumers wants

Tradition, Respect and No Limits

By Gary DiGiuseppe

The U.S. beef industry offers a special product to American consumers. The problem is, the industry hasn't been saying so.

That was one of the findings of a consumer research project by Intervet/Schering-Plough Animal Health (ISPAH), which commissioned marketing company Just Ask a Woman (JAAW) to examine women's beliefs and behaviors related to beef.

One of JAAW's principals, Tracy Chapman, says the study was launched in January 2010 and took 5 months to complete. "We started by talking with some leading experts in the industry, from food TV producers to organic bloggers to women's magazine editors," Chapman says. "We went out and did in-depth group interviews with about 100 women, and then we did some in-home ethnographies where we actually cooked with families in their homes, and had them go to the supermarket."

Bob Giblin, ISPAH's food industry communications manager, says the study was the first of a more comprehensive effort. "We wanted to learn to communicate better with consumers on their terms. We've received a lot of feedback from retail grocers, the restaurant industry, food service, packers and others that consumers would really like to know more about how their beef is produced, and they'd also like to see more transparency. The challenge is that the language of agriculture and beef production is really foreign to them, so we're working toward learning how to talk about our products and our industry in ways that are meaningful and relevant to consumers."

Our tradition earns their patronage

One of the biggest language problems identified through the research by the JAAW team was a single word: Conventional. The industry has been describing beef produced through modern, efficient techniques as "conventionally raised." Shoppers, JAAW discovered, call it "regular beef," as a way of contrasting it with products that carry an "organic" or "natural" claim..

Chapman says women don't like the idea of conventional beef. "That just means it's a regular product and not something special or something that they feel good about," she says. Instead, the research suggests, call it "traditional" beef.

"This idea of a traditional product really evokes images of heritage and quality," says Chapman, "and also who's putting it on the table. When you think about the chain going back to the farm, women like to see the farmer and the farmer family. It's not about ‘industry'; it's not about ‘producers.' It's about an image of someone taking care of the product that's going on your plate."

JAAW describes "traditional beef" as "A Name of Its Own," in a phrase reminiscent of A League of Their Own, the classic women-as-baseball-stars movie.

Our respect earns their loyalty

Just Ask a Woman was founded in 1999. Its CEO, Mary Lou Quinlan, is an author and 30-year veteran of the advertising world. The firm says women buy or influence the purchase of nearly 85 percent of everything sold, and tells its clients it can inspire marketplace results and loyalty by trusting the intelligence and insight of women, instead of treating them as a "target" to be sold to.

Says Chapman, "Consumers, especially the moms of the country, are smart. They're trying to make the best decisions while under the pressure of time and stress, opinions of friends and the media, and, of course, a challenging economy — we've seen how the economy has affected their purchasing decisions over the last year and a half, or so. The beef industry, we believe, owes it to their most powerful customer, the American mom, to ease the way to the choices she wants to make, and to never hijack her dinner table with agendas that aren't hers."

Our marketing niches give them choices

The theme of "personal choice" plays a prominent role in the study. Intervet's research summary of the study concludes, "Though cattle farmers and ranchers, packers and retailers continue to evolve their best practices to provide the highest quality and variety of beef products, the industry is challenged by pressures from anti-agriculture activists, popular ‘story tellers' and confusing labels. These negative influences rally the power of the media, including the celebrity community, to devalue the beef we produce and sell."

Chapman says when the women in the study were told a shift toward the methods promoted by alternative agriculture advocates could raise prices and reduce availability of beef, "That was when they questioned and put up the stop sign, saying, ‘Wait a minute. You're telling me that I might not have options in the future? Why would that be, and how can I make sure that that doesn't happen?'"

Chapman explains that shoppers don't really think about what goes into the end product they see in the store, or why it's priced the way it is. Intervet says a number of conflicts were unearthed in the study. One of them was that while women would like to buy organic product because they think it's better for them, they don't understand the higher price, nor can they justify or afford it. Another is that they're interested in sustainability, but they only want it if it's "bite-sized" — affordable and convenient, with no sacrifice of flavor or quality.

Calling beef produced through modern methods "traditional beef," the researchers concluded, reaches the consumer on several levels. It evokes powerful memories at home. Women remember growing up with beef as a favorite choice for family occasions, and it is part of their family heritage.

It calls to mind decades of care. Women respect the role of the cattle farmer families who have evolved best practices over decades for the best quality beef.

And it signals dependable flavor and quality — women are accustomed to having a wide price, cut and type of beef selection at the meat case, and want to keep a range of choices.

The summary recommends the industry start thinking about the "steak" and not the "steer," because that's how consumers perceive the product. Chapman says, "They really were worried and concerned about the look of it, the cost of it — certainly, the quality of the product."

But at the same time, JAAW detected a comfort level among the subjects in the study. "They felt really good about the products that are available to them," she says. "Moms, especially moms who are considering what goes into their family's diet, really wanted to make sure that they were getting quality products and something that they could feel proud about putting on their table, but they also felt that today's technology and the practices that companies take to make sure that the products are safe and better than ever before."

Three pillars — confidence, trust, choice

Safety is one of what Intervet's summary describes as the "Three Emotional Pillars of Traditional Beef." Among the other conflicts the women in the study expressed was a fear of science in food, but a greater fear of the unknown. There was also a skepticism about "additives," but the researchers determined that "supplements" backed by safety assurances relieve those concerns.

And so, another change is recommended in the way the industry thinks about the business — replace "additive" with "supplement."

Giblin says one of the things Intervet learned from the project is that when it comes to buying beef, women are confident in their judgment. "They're really making decisions a lot on the visual assessment at the case, not as much by daily news, but by the way that the product looks, its quality, its appearance, its price, and whether or not it meets their needs at that time," he says.

The company also learned that the beef industry needs to develop more tools and messages so people at the other end of the marketing chain — packers, retailers, food service handlers — can continue to "reassure consumers about the quality and safety in the way their beef is produced. We need to reassure them that they are making good purchase decisions, and then arm all of the players in our industry with messages to help build that confidence."

"Women are savvy," explains Chapman. "They want to know they're getting good product, but they also need to feel the emotional ties that pull them in, and often I think when we look at this industry, it is very rational. So any emotional pull to make her feel comfortable about the product she's buying makes her feel that she is making the right choice for her and her family."

And while everybody likes modern technology, she says, women don't want to think about the technology and "modernness" of the product. "It's not to say that they don't understand that technology helps make a better product," she says. "They just don't want to think about that when it comes to their food."

The other two emotional pillars identified in the Intervet summary are trust and freedom of choice. The summary says the industry should stop presenting the beef chain as a complex agribusiness, and should instead focus on beef as a product "raised by cattle farmer families — trusted for their families and yours."

The industry, it says, should also stop thinking of organic as the enemy, and instead focus on freedom of choice as the hero. Women, says Chapman, "see that there are options and variety, and they want that to continue…. We also have to give them a sense that they are getting a variety of choices, and it's their choice."

The idea that their selections could be limited, she says, "put their guard up. They didn't want to feel as if somebody else was going to make choices for them that would limit what was available to them in the store."

While the beef industry has been concerned for years about the increasing degree of unfamiliarity modern consumers have with the cuts of beef and how to prepare them, JAAW found women — and some men, in the home settings they witnessed — were willing to experiment, with the vast array of cookbooks and cooking shows on satellite television channels like The Food Network contributing to their curiosity.

"There was an excitement in the options available, and the different cuts and the different marinades," says Chapman. "I think that certainly they fall back on their comfort foods, and what's easy to make, but they also are expanding their horizons and choosing different products to try. Many of them talked about their moms cooking, how the options are certainly wider today, and that they're happy they have more options today to choose from."

And while the economy has been a factor in selection at the supermarket, Chapman says women still indicated they were buying based on their preferences. "Maybe it was some extra money in the wallet for that month or that week, or it was just on their shopping list the week they wanted to go a little bit more high-end. Maybe it was just an easy meal. So we found that while money was top of mind, they weren't necessarily purchasing just based on what was in the wallet," she says.

Where does the industry go from here? Giblin says, "I think the first and foremost thing we can do is continue to offer products with good quality, and to constantly keep raising the bar on quality, safety and animal welfare, sustainability and other factors, all part of this mix of things that are going into the shopping bag. But I think the biggest thing we can do is to keep our focus on making the consumer's expectations the gold standard, providing a really high quality product. Before we talk about anything else, we need to back it all up and make sure we're producing and selling tasty beef."

In addition, more in-depth research is needed into how the industry can communicate with consumers — as he put it, "learn how to talk in their language … continuing to develop understanding of our consumers, the way they think and their belief systems, in language they understand is really crucial to the success of our industry. And that's something we intend to keep moving forward with."

Editor's note: Intervet/Schering-Plough Animal Health commissioned the research study that Tracy Chapman presented at the 2010 Texas Cattle Feeders Association convention. Chapman will be a featured speaker at the TSCRA Association Promotion Committee meeting, part of the 2011 TSCRA Convention Weekend, April 1-3, San Antonio.