A Marketer's Lens By Danette Amstein
Danette Amstein is a managing principal for Midan Marketing - a full-service agency that solely focuses on supporting the meat industry.

The vultures are circling: Address negative perceptions of the meat industry now

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

Shock. Fear. Panic. Frustration. These emotions have been coursing through Americans since mid-March and have been especially acute for those of us in the meat business. I know I experienced the first two, then was too busy supporting crisis communication to ever have time for panic. But frustration? Yeah, I am there as I suspect many of you are, too. We are all wondering when this pandemic is going to end and what our world will look like when it does.

COVID-19 has had a devastating impact not only on the meat channel (especially foodservice), but on how consumers view packer/processors. Recent research and social listening point to the need to act now to counteract the ever-present opportunists.

In the early days of the pandemic in the U.S., the meat industry landed smack dab in the media crosshairs. Just like a good movie, a juicy news cycle must have a villain and we were it. The negative press was like an endless rushing river with the industry trying to navigate upstream against the rapids. During this time consumers’ positive perceptions of packer/processors took a hit, plummeting 18 percentage points, from 62% expressing positive sentiment before COVID-19.1

When they see an opening, the vultures — I mean opportunists — always seem to show up. One example in the meat industry is vegan and vegetarian movements. They made every effort to capitalize upon the negative news cycle and proclaim “their” way was the better way. This type of spin was pronounced in our social listening reports. There was a 469% increase in conversations that included the words “meat” and “vegetarian” or “vegan” from March through May of this year versus 2019. The reporting also indicated a 24 percentage-point increase in negative sentiment about meat in general during this same time frame.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons we are all feeling frustrated?

Things have gotten better. For the most part, reporters with TV cameras are no longer lurking outside of processing plants and making calls promising disgruntled employees their 15 minutes of fame. But, collectively, we still have a lot of work to do.

When consumers stand in front of the meat case or order off the menu, there may be a seed of doubt about meat that wasn’t there before, and we need to address that now. Otherwise the animal activists and plant-based groups will be circling. We must work to remove that doubt. As stated on Edeleman’s website when they released their Brand Trust in 2020 report, trust is now “the make or break difference for brands.”2 I want all of us to make it.

What can we do?

Be proactive: Marshall Goldsmith’s quote (and book title) “What got you here won’t get you there,” couldn’t be more fitting. Whatever level of proactive-ness you thought you were at before COVID needs to be dialed up — way up. There is a sense of urgency now that far outpaces prior times. Put your company’s narrative out there. Share what you are doing in a proactive way so that you don’t appear defensive later.

Focus on safety: COVID-19 has moved consumers from a state in which food safety was just expected to a time where it is top of mind. If your brands are trusted, communicating what you are doing to keep meat safe will help keep you in the “trusted” column. If your brands lose consumer confidence, you will not gain it back without addressing safety.

Up your transparency: Here is where our personal and professional lives collide. In my personal life, if I am unsure of something, I seek more information; I read with a higher degree of skepticism. I bet you do too. But professionally, we like to keep everything all nice and tidy and only share the good stuff. Consumers see right through that. Be real. Be authentic. Be transparent. Rule of thumb: If you are completely comfortable with everything you are sharing you probably aren’t being transparent. The level of information you are sharing should leave you feeling a tad vulnerable. Without doing so, we risk not regaining any trust we have lost.

Talk directly to consumers: Don’t leave this for the retailer or foodservice operator to do. If you haven’t already, increase your social media presence including timely — no, insanely quick — responses to the questions that come in. Not answering is a death sentence. Slow response times are toxic to consumer trust.

Any long-term business impact from COVID-19 is dependent on what we do now to protect and grow consumer trust. Let’s get to work.

1Midan Marketing, COVID-19 Research Survey, June 2020


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