Making the connection
Meat and poultry companies strive to build meaningful relationships with customers in the crowded protein marketplace
By Treena Hein
In these days of drooping public trust in the food system, it’s not just important to connect effectively with consumers, it’s a must.
Along with offering products that are humanely raised, organic and antibiotic-free (and even products that are not conventional meat, or meat at all), Canadian meat and poultry businesses big and small have stepped up efforts to build and maintain strong customer ties.
Connections must be built in the meat sector for the same reasons they must be cultivated in any sector: in order to stave off or get ahead of the competition. But that’s a hard go when consumers are constantly bombarded with marketing messages from all directions, notes Melanie Boldt, who owns Pine View Farms and Butcher Shop just north of Saskatoon, Sask. with her husband Kevin. The Boldts have been producing a variety of meat products for about 20 years from animals fed vegetarian feed in a low-stress and low-density environment, which provides a higher quality of life and reduces chance of illnesses. “Connecting with customers is our biggest challenge…[and] what is most important to us is talking to the customer, in the language of the customer, about things the customer cares about,” Boldt explains. “If we can do that, we can maintain our share of voice in a crowded marketplace.”
But just how are meat companies specifically connecting with consumers? Boldt says it’s definitely a matter of being genuine and truthful. “Customers can access information anywhere, any time,” she says. “It’s all in the palm of their hands. Now more than ever, brands must walk the talk. Brands and their owners must be authentic and transparent…We continue to tell the story of how and why we do what we do, try to accelerate word of mouth through our investments in media and then delight the customer through his or her experience with our farm and butcher shop.”
For her part, Cynthia Beretta believes the best connections with customers are always personal and imbued with meaning. “Whether that includes a phone call, email or a one-on-one meeting with our customers, my husband Mike and I are always available and welcome consumer feedback,” she says. “When this approach is not an option, social media has been very influential in giving our consumers a look at what we do, how we do it and why it’s meaningful.” Cynthia and Mike own Beretta Farms, which markets natural meat products (organic beef and chicken, antibiotic-free and hormone-free beef and pork and antibiotic-free chicken) from dozens of affiliate ranches/farms across Canada and one in Australia.
Beretta Farms has long posted video and images from their farms and the people who own them in order to click with consumers. This year the company will also hold family and corporate “Farm Days” and several customer dinners at the original farm in King City, Ont. “Our goal is to provide our consumers a direct line to what is happening at Beretta so that they can be collaborative partners and help us shape the future of farming,” says Beretta. “Education is key for our consumers, and keeping them educated and informed is our number-one job.”
Beretta Farms also makes sure to use a wide range of social media tools, as does Maple Leaf Foods, Canada’s largest meat firm. “We are active on numerous platforms of social media including Facebook, YouTube and Instagram across multiple brands, as this is where today’s consumers live,” says Annemarie Dijkhuis, director of Public Relations for Maple Leaf. “We can speak directly to our consumers through these platforms and have the opportunity for two-way dialogue.”
Cargill Protein, which markets 28 meat product brands in North America, also uses social media and the internet to connect with customers, but like many other businesses, it doesn’t stop there. “We are continuously connecting with consumers via in-store intercepts, in-home interviews and online research to find out what motivates, interests and concerns them,” explains Cory Lommel, director of Consumer Insight for Cargill Protein. “Cargill is committed to truly understanding consumer needs and trends, as we believe doing so will allow us to provide desired goods and services while also giving us a competitive advantage in the marketplace, regardless of how the marketplace evolves going forward.”
Already the protein products marketplace is increasingly evolving away from conventional meat and towards alternative products. Maple Leaf has noticed that today’s consumers still enjoy meat, “but they are looking for more options and to diversify their protein choices and moderate their meat protein consumption for numerous reasons,” says Dijkhuis. Maple Leaf believes there is currently a lack of variety and quality in the meat alternatives market, so to connect with consumers who want more and better choice, the firm acquired U.S.-based alternative protein brands Field Roast and Lightlife in 2017.
Field Roast’s ingredients include grains, fresh vegetables, dried fruits, wine and spices, combined into fresh and frozen roasts, loaves, sausages, burgers, deli slices and appetizers. The company also produces Chao brand vegan cheese slices and entrées. Lightlife produces a range of frozen and refrigerated plant-based protein products, from Veggie Sausage Ravioli to Smart Tenders Savory Chick’n.
For its part, Cargill Protein is connecting with consumers who still want to eat meat, but meat produced off the farm. Along with many other major investors, it is backing U.S.-based Memphis Meats, which has a target of launching cell-cultured meat products (beef, chicken and duck so far) by 2021.
To connect with the rapidly rising number of consumers who now understand the impact that the global food system has on our planet, Maple Leaf committed in mid-2017 to being “the most sustainable protein company on Earth.” It will achieve this “based on a sweeping set of principles and an expansive sustainability agenda that has yielded substantial advancements in nutrition and environmental impact, elevated animal care and step-changed the company’s investment in social change.” It may be too soon to see how much consumer connection will be reaped from the initiative.
What is certain is that consumer connection efforts are keeping pace with new technologies. For example, many food companies, from berry farms to Cargill Protein, already offer customers a way to trace products back to the farm level, typically by inputting a product code into a website. Lommel says Cargill Protein is evaluating what it’s learned from its Honeysuckle White turkey traceability project to determine how the firm might apply technologyin the future to build further consumer connections. “Our purpose is to nourish the world in a safe, responsible and sustainable way,” he says. “Optimizing our effectiveness in connecting with consumers helps us to better achieve this goal.”