What’s with “consumer demand?”

Both retailers and farm groups are using farm practices as a marketing pitch

I have to admit I am more than a little sceptical of the term “consumer demand.” If I believed every TV commercial, news report, magazine article and corporate pitch talking about consumer demand I doubt I’d be able to leave the house without running into an angry mob rallied in front of some office or business screaming out demands. The fact is I haven’t seen that.

And yet you can barely go to a meeting, hear a news report, or read a headline where someone isn’t confirming that “consumers are demanding” this, that or the other.

Consumers probably have a lot of wants but I really wonder how many are demanding, and if they are, then precisely where are they doing this demanding?

Yet you listen to conference speakers, retailers, restaurant chains — even many industry associations — and we are reminded time and again consumers are demanding a certain product or practice.

Yes, consumer trends and preferences change, but I think a lot of the talk about “demand” is self-serving commercial hype. A company like Costco, or Walmart or the board of directors at A & W might be “demanding” something but it may only be partly based on consumer preferences.

Marketing strategy

I wonder if the real strategy isn’t more about let’s create a problem, or at least allude to a potential consumer concern and present ourselves as the solution. “Isn’t it awful that horses go to packing plants, well we are one retailer that will never sell horse meat.” To be honest I have yet to hear that claim, but it wouldn’t one day surprise me to see if featured on a menu “antibiotic-free, hormone-free, horsemeat-free zone.” The so-called consumer demand is more often than not based on a marketing strategy — find a problem and offer ourselves as a solution.

I like A & W burgers. I have from the get go. One of the first places I hit when I finally got a driver’s licence, borrowed my parents’ car, and was warned by my mother to stay on the country roads close to the farm, was straight to the city to an A & W drive-in restaurant. Even the potential wrath of mother could not come between me and a Papa burger.

A & W is a good restaurant, has good products, reasonably good value, and certainly is a good marketer. One improvement I suggested to a company vice-president at a conference this past fall was that could come up with zero-calorie poutine, they’d really be on to something. But, A & W has reinvented itself on the back of the livestock industry, all around a myth that somehow conventionally produced beef and chicken is not as good as an antibiotic- and hormone-free-product that has never been fed animal protein. They don’t use the actual words “conventional is bad” but the message is clear. So was that based on something the consumer was demanding, or did A & W just indirectly tell consumers something wasn’t good, but we have the solution? And they are not the only restaurant or food retailer to do this.

Another questionable practice are industry associations who spend a fair chunk of checkoff dollars producing warm and fuzzy videos showing farmers and ranchers who are the most kind and considerate and environmentally and animal welfare-conscious people on the face of the earth. And they very well may be and likely are just that. They are nice to look at, but how many consumers actually ever see them? The association feels good about doing this consumer education, but does it ever win over a single borderline consumer? Does it change an attitude? If this message is so vital perhaps crop protection companies, animal health companies, processors and retailers should foot the bill for these productions.

Busy retailers

I don’t believe consumers are at Costco or Walmart because they are searching out hormone- and antibiotic-free products produced by happy farmers using environmentally sound and humane production practices. The consumers might think those are all features that are nice to know, but they are there for price and value.

I think what the consumer wants, and perhaps mostly demands, is a good-quality product, safe and healthy, hopefully tasty, and available at the lowest price possible. I think they like to see a farmer’s face, like to know products are produced with good environmental stewardship, want to believe animals are treated properly and raised with humane production practices, but those are all secondary or bonus features. Put conventionally raised hamburger on sale for $1/pound and watch out for the stampede.

There is no doubt a small percentage that will ignore price to search out retailers offering these “better” food products, but they are a minority.

This list of “consumer demands” and the changes it brings to the agriculture industry isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Crops and livestock should be produced with the minimum of crop protection products, or antibiotics or added hormones, in the most environmentally sustainable manner and with safe and humane livestock production practices. There is an old line, “if you are doing something you wouldn’t tell your wife, then you shouldn’t be doing it.” Similarly with agriculture if you are doing something you don’t want people to see, then you shouldn’t be doing it.

It is important to keep “consumer demand” in perspective. Use the best production practices, and the consumers will come.

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.

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