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The Brand Name Bandwagon

By Jo Robinson

Industry experts predicted that, by 2005, half of the fresh meat products in the supermarket would carry a brand name. No more anonymous, shrink-wrapped beef, lamb, and pork. The reason for the branding is simple: merely adding a name to a package of steaks can increase sales by thirty percent.

Why do brand names carry such clout? Part of the answer is “word association.” The right brand name can trick customers into believing that meat that comes straight from the feedlot is the most wholesome, nutritious product they can buy. Here’s how it works. Imagine that you’re the owner of a large herd of Angus cattle in Iowa, and you’re wondering if jumping onto the branded meat bandwagon will boost your sales. To find out, you hire a team of marketing consultants. The consultants inform you that adding a brand name can be very effective, as long as you follow their advice.

First, they say, your brand name should include the name of a specific farm or person. If you call your meat “Marvin’s Beef,” for example, customers are going to assume there’s a Marvin somewhere who cares about his reputation, and, therefore, his meat. Without having to make any overt claims, you’ve created the illusion of quality. (Of course, the fact that the name “Marvin” was selected by your consultants remains your little secret.)

You will boost sales even more, you are told, if you add “Iowa” to your label. Most people have a positive association with their own state. For example, when I was living in Oregon, I made the point of buying “Oregon fresh chicken,” assuming that the local chickens were raised more wholesomely than those in Arkansas. Then I toured a confinement poultry operation near Corvallis, Oregon and learned the grim truth.

Another way to enhance your brand name, you are advised, is to add a bucolic term or two. Most consumers are so estranged from the land that they yearn for anything that suggests country living. How about “Farmer Marvin’s Iowa Beef?” you ask. They tell you this is an excellent choice of words because “Farmer Marvin” evokes the past as well as the countryside. (“Old McMarvin had a farm.”) You give your graphic artists the go-ahead to design a logo with a red barn and haystack to reinforce the nostalgia.

Great. With just four carefully chosen words, you’ve managed to imbue your feedlot meat with integrity, local pride, wholesome country living, and the nostalgic past. But just when you’re ready to trademark your name, you start reading newspaper and magazine articles that sing the praises of something called “grass-fed beef.” You begin to worry that this quaint concept—keeping animals home on the range— might challenge the superiority of grain-fed beef.

Not to worry, says your marketing team. You can capitalize on the allure simply by adding words like “meadows,” “prairie” or “pasture” to your label. These words conjure up lush fields of grass without saying that your animals actually graze on the stuff. The name search is over. You are now the proud owner of “Farmer Marvin’s Meadow-Fresh Iowa Beef.” Image is all.

As you might imagine, this “greening” of feedlot beef is making life more difficult for grass farmers who raise their cattle on pasture from birth to market. The very qualities these ranchers embody—name accountability; local production; and a more natural, wholesome, and environmentally friendly product—are being co-opted by large, conventional beef producers. What’s more, the big guys have far more money to spend on image development and marketing. How are you going to tell if cattle from the “Sweet Pastures Beef Company” eat one lick of grass?

My advice is to call the meat producer’s customer service number and say that you want to come for a visit. Say that you want to see with your own eyes: 1. where the animals are raised, 2. what they are fed, and 3. how they are being treated. Settle for nothing less. The producers of Farmer Marvin’s Meadow-Fresh Iowa Beef will not allow you to tour their dusty, odiferous feedlot. Marketing money can create the illusion, but not the reality.