Ever since A&W’s TV commercials starting touting the premium quality of beef in their burgers—which is produced without added hormones—many tweets, blogs and comments in the agriculture media have been filled with contempt for a company that has the audacity to in any way imply that what Canadian mainstream beef producers ship to market isn’t already good.
I read a reply from someone who is apparently a PR representative for A&W to one blog post, and he pointed out, quite rightly, the company hasn’t said the run-of-the-mill hamburger in supermarket meat counters isn’t good. In fact, the ad campaign makes no direct comment about regular beef at all. It does, however, imply their is better.
What A&W is doing is marketing to an affluent society that sees “hormone free” as a premium product, and it’s finding customers willing to pay for it. Is this a novel concept? No. Is there anything unusual about that? No. As an added benefit to our industry, that same spokesperson claims the company is paying a premium price to producers who supply them with the kind of beef they want.
So what, exactly, is the problem? Why is there so much gnashing of teeth in the ag media about good old Albert and Walter’s latest effort to position itself in the market and potentially put a little more coin in some producers’ pockets?
It seems to me I’ve heard all those what-we-produce-is-great-just-buy-it-and-shut-up arguments coming from the ag sector many times before. Every time I do, I just want to scream.
We in agriculture seem to be one of the only producer groups determined to ignore what our customers actually want from us. And remember, consumer buying trends change over time.
Case in point.
Back in the early 1950s, Ford began building some crash-protection features into its vehicles and marketed them as a safer alternative to the competition. At the time, the number of North American road fatalities was in the stratosphere compared to today. It’s not hard to understand why. Just look at the design of most vehicles built in that era. Crash worthiness wasn’t on the mind of many engineers—or vehicle buyers for that matter.
It turned out no one was willing to pay for frivolous options like seat belts. Ford’s marketing campaign was a horrible flop, although it shouldn’t have been. Ford soon dropped it in favour of other strategies. Deaths and injuries remained high until the 1970s when consumer awareness started to change. Companies like Volvo and Saab first exploited a growing niche market of people willing to pay for safer cars. And today, safety sells.
Now, I’m not suggesting that like cars with seat belts beef raised without implanted growth hormones is better or safer. The reality is, just like those early Fords, it doesn’t matter if it is safer or not. What does matter is many people want “hormone free” and are willing to pay for it. All the scientific arguments I see being presented in the media by advocates of standard beef production practices miss the point, which is—let me repeat this—it just doesn’t matter.
What matters is what the people spending the really money want. Like the Scandinavian car companies of the 1970s, A&W may be exploiting the leading edge of a very broad trend.
So here’s the question. Should we as beef producers rail against consumer trends or embrace them as opportunities to sell “premium” versions of our product at a higher price. Just remember what the sticker price of new Volvos and Saabs was back in the day. (If you aren’t old enough to have walked through car lots looking at window stickers while wearing a white liesure suit, I can tell you they were pretty expensive compared to North American models, but they sold pretty well, nevertheless.)
Maybe the what-we-produce-is-great-just-buy-it-and-shut-up motto of some in the industry should change to let’s just produce what people want, shut up and tally the profit.