Consumer Perceptions By Michael Uetz
Michael Uetz is a managing principal in the Chicago office of Midan Marketing where he oversees the work of the market research team.

Don’t let “sustainably raised” become the new “natural”

(The views and opinions expressed in this blog are strictly those of the author.)

Just about everybody knows what makes a great steak, right?  Even if you like ribeye and I like filet, it’s pretty easy for us to agree that high quality beef produces a tender, juicy steak that delivers an awesome eating experience. And fortunately for the meat industry, millions of meat eaters feel the same way.   

But if you ask meat consumers to define “sustainably raised beef,” don’t expect a consensus.  

In preparation for a keynote presentation to the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainably Raised Beef (USRSB) this past summer, Midan Marketing asked 500 fresh beef consumers about their awareness of and interest in purchasing beef that is raised using sustainable methods. We confirmed that consumers don’t have a complete understanding of what “sustainably raised beef” means, and more disconcerting for the industry, many aren’t able to translate it to a benefit with added value.

Specifically, in spite of the fact that more than half (62%) of fresh beef consumers say they are aware of “sustainably raised beef,” only 47% of fresh beef consumers could provide any definition for sustainably raised beef. That means that slightly more than half of our target audience was unable to articulate a top-of-mind definition for “sustainably raised beef.”

How did consumers describe sustainably raised beef?  We received a range of responses that fell primarily into social and environmental buckets, like “healthy/healthier meat” (23%) or “land/water stewardship” (17%).

Here is where the big disconnect comes in for the beef industry. The impressive work that the USRSB is doing to advance the U.S. beef chain’s sustainability platform is based on an integration of three broad key areas:  environmentally sound, socially responsible and economically viable beef. Compared to the many sustainability initiatives that USRSB member companies are undertaking within these three areas, beef consumers’ current definition of sustainably raised beef is woefully narrow. Many initiatives that the industry is working hard to achieve barely register top of mind with consumers. These initiatives include production efficiencies to conserve energy, maintaining the biodiversity of land, and respecting the traditions of people who live in and around farms.

After survey participants were exposed to a more complete definition of sustainability that included social, environmental and economic factors based on beef industry initiatives, they were asked about their level of interest in purchasing sustainably raised beef products. Almost half (44%) said they would definitely purchase these products. For those reluctant to purchase these products, 43% cited price as the key barrier.

Given that consumers are uncertain about what sustainably raised beef provides and unaware of the depth of the sustainability initiatives the industry is carrying out, many do not recognize the value versus the perceived cost of these products.

Good thing the meat industry doesn’t back down from a challenge. Success will require that the beef and other industries agree on a common, easily understood definition for sustainability that will be communicated to consumers.   A word of caution:  we don’t want to go down the path of the “natural” claim, where multiple industry definitions confused consumers to the point that they no longer have faith in or perceive the value of products that are labeled “natural.”

The beef industry is working hard to develop a beef production system that truly delivers on a significant number of key sustainability points that consumers say they value. Knowing how best to make consumers aware of the efforts that the beef industry is undertaking to provide more sustainable food solutions, and helping consumers assign enough added value to these products so they are willing to pay more for them would offer tremendous benefits throughout the beef supply chain.

That sounds like something we can all agree on.

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