When it comes to marketing premium protein—no matter if it’s cows, pigs or lambs—it starts at the farm. Telling the story of where and how livestock is raised plays a critical role in why consumers choose these products, which come at a much higher price point than commodity meats. In the U.S. Beef Shopper Journey Study from Meat & Livestock Australia, Sydney, consumers indicated that attributes such as all-natural and humanely raised are key drivers when purchasing meat.
Retailers are taking note. “For many years, the meat industry was focused on volume to lap last year’s dollar performance,” says Anne-Marie Roerink, principal with San Antonio-based 210 Analytics. “But increasingly, retailers are experimenting with items that can drive a higher dollar ring and, with it, a higher margin. That includes items with special production attributes like NAE (no antibiotics ever), organic or grass-fed.” These types of attributes are not price-focused but rather are focused on perceived health benefits, convenience or a great eating experience, all of which allow for a higher ring and higher margin strategy, Roerink adds.
But how can consumers be sure that the meat they purchase truly was raised according to these attributes? Several brands allow consumers to track the particular cut of meat they have purchased all the way back to the farm where it was born. This level of transparency is quickly becoming table stakes in the premium protein category, but it also has the benefit of alerting consumers to the breed of the animal, which can affect eating quality.
Most of the beef in the United States comes from Angus cows, which is a large and varied breed. But certain genetic strains have proven superior to others, especially when it comes to marbling and flavor, and these are the ones that are sought by the premium meat brands. Some brands, such as Niman Ranch, control the production process from birth to end cut.
Photograph courtesy of Niman Ranch
“We have this great-tasting product that starts with genetics,” says Kay Cornelius, VP of foodservice and retail sales for Niman Ranch, Northglenn, Colo., and a practicing cattle rancher. “Then we go beyond that to where our cattle are sourced. They are almost always born on the same ranch or farm as when they leave to go to harvest.”
Part of this reasoning for raising the animals in place, so to speak, is that it keeps the stress level low for the cows, which in turn produces a better-tasting product for consumers. Just as with humans, moving causes stress, and “there’s new recent research that says the more stress an animal has, the tougher the meat,” Cornelius says. “They’re set up to be the best possible eating opportunity when they are finally harvested.” With commodity beef, the animals likely move several times from the ranch where they are born: to a ranch where they grow a little larger, to a feed lot and finally a harvesting facility.
Importance of Education
While consumers are embracing the transparency producers are providing, they still look to retailers for additional education. It’s the staff behind the meat counter that can best explain marbling and its effect on eating quality, says David O’Diam, VP of retail for Certified Angus Beef, Wooster, Ohio. “We spend an extensive amount of time, effort and resources to truly educating the staff to help them be better prepared to interact with that customer, because an educated customer is willing to try just about anything,” he says. “That’s really the key: educating that customer to allow them the opportunity to trade up, in many instances.”
Ozlem Worpel, senior brand manager for Tyson Fresh Meats, Dakota Dunes, S.D., agrees. “There are so many sources for education these days, but consumers still have questions when they get to the meat case. They want to make sure they’re getting what they’re paying for, and fresh meat can be intimidating,” she says.
Photograph courtesy of Certified Angus Beef
Butchers or knowledgeable sales staff can ultimately be the reason why consumers choose a premium cut of protein. “Many shoppers, in particular millennials, limit themselves to meat/poultry basics because they are uncertain how to prepare these more premium cuts and end up eating out,” says Roerink of 210 Analytics. “Having knowledgeable meat associates, sampling or a hands-on YouTube video or expert tips by the butcher can be a great way to give people the confidence that they can prepare a premium meal in the comfort of their own homes.”
Patrick Sanagursky, category manager of beef and pork for Giant Food Stores, Carlisle, Pa., understands the importance of knowledgeable staff when it comes to overcoming consumer concerns. Questions typically revolve around preparation and value for the price, he says. “If you are purchasing an expensive cut of meat, you want to impress your guests by cooking it correctly,” Sanagursky says. “Our meat department associates are very knowledgeable and are able to assist customers. We also hear, ‘Is it worth it?’ We have to try to engage our associates on new items by offering them opportunity to sample and to do the same with customers. Our team is excited to share their own ways of preparing food and can give tips and tricks.”
However, the benefit of premium protein isn’t relegated only to the meat department. As Roerink points out, consumers often buy these premium products when they are planning to entertain, and that presents some cross-merchandising opportunities for retailers. “Shoppers are looking to entertain, celebrate a special occasion or seasonal holiday or create a restaurant-like eating experience at home, which can all be important clues for marketing and merchandising,” she says.
“Many consumers tie premium meat to beef,” Roerink says. “But by educating consumers on other premium eating experiences, retailers may have an opportunity to drive that higher ring and higher-margin purchase a little more often” by pushing proteins such as “heritage pork, lamb, bison or exotic meats.”
Most U.S. consumers do stick to the more familiar beef, but “there is definitely a large segment of the higher-income and ethically motivated shoppers looking for options outside the mainstream,” says Catherine Golding, business development manager, North America, for Meat & Livestock Australia. “It speaks to the continued climb in grass-fed beef and lamb sales in an otherwise flattish beef market. Cuts remain relatively stable, with ground, roast and steak cuts continuing to be first in the basket, but it is the diversity of protein types that is driving interest and sales. This provides opportunity for grocers for higher-quality and healthier offerings that includes highlighting more diverse types of protein like lamb.”
What it all boils down to is that premium offerings in the meat department can mean higher sales throughout the entire store. “Premium brands offer a certain level of quality that elevates the perception beyond the meat case, throughout the entire store,” says Worpel of Tyson Fresh Meats. “Consumers typically choose their grocery store based on the fresh meat case and produce offerings. If a retailer can offer superior quality in those areas, it increases their store traffic, basket ring per shopping trip and overall perception of the quality of their store.”
Sous Vide: Consumers’ Sous Chef
Sous vide, cooking food in a water bath, has been around for more than half a century, used mostly as a safety measure for mass produced food. But the method has increased in popularity in recent years, spurred first by high-end restaurants and now being embraced by food producers to ensure quality as well as food safety. Several producers are introducing sous vide products for the meat category. “It’s probably one of the most meaningful innovations to come along to the meat category in a long time,” says Pete Lewis, VP of marketing for Woburn, Mass.-based Verde Farms. He likens it to the introduction of bagged salads in the produce department.
The name itself is a hurdle can be a hurdle because some consumers may not be familiar with the method and therefore don’t understand how to use the products. But once that hurdle is overcome, the products offer benefits to both retailers and consumers.
“The benefits passed on to the consumer is 100% the quality itself,” says Johnny Auer, director of marketing for Mundelein, Ill.-based Ruprecht, a protein provider to grocery and foodservice. “Depending on the item, but typically the low and slow-cooked proteins, when you cook them sous vide, they’re cooked so perfectly that we don’t need to add anything to it. It’s minimally processed and you come out with some incredible chef-like flavor and quality.”
For retailers, once they get over the higher price point, they quickly realize the added shelf life and higher quality—which means a higher profit—can be a good fit for their departments. Because the products are vacuum-sealed, the shelf life is significantly longer than fresh packaged meat, so the chances the retailers are taking on high-priced cuts also is lessened because they have more time to sell it.
Sous vide works well for almost any protein, but retailers and consumers tend to choose the items that are more difficult to cook in the home. Beef short ribs is one such example, Auer says. “They take a long time and they’re overwhelming to look at when you buy them in the meat case. But most of us know that beef short ribs are one of the most delicious things you can eat,” he says.
Lewis of Verde Farms notes that one of the reasons more people don’t consume proteins such as beef is because they can be difficult to cook, and for higher-priced cuts, the cost of failure can be high. “To me, the promise of sous vide is that it’s going to reengage people to lower their fear about cooking a perfect ribeye every time. If you remove that sort of anxious fear, you really turn cooking into joy and happiness,” he says.