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Action must meet words for beef industry

By Jennifer M. Latzke

There is no doubt that the U.S. beef industry continues to face challenges of weather, consumer perceptions, government regulations and more, but Forrest Roberts, chief executive officer of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said now is the time to look for the opportunities.

11Roberts spoke at the 2012 Texas Cattle Feeders Association Annual Meeting in late October in San Antonio, Texas. He followed Daren Williams, executive director of communications for NCBA, who just the day prior walked cattlemen through the role social media plays in influencing beef demand and disseminating beef information to consumers.

"This is where action meets the words," Roberts said. "We have a window of opportunity, from now until 2018 or 2020, to set the stage for the next generation of beef consumers." It's up to beef producers to capitalize on it, he added.

Craving beef

Beef producers for years have had an advantage in the marketplace, and that is taste, Roberts said. Consumers, from around the world to around the corner, crave beef. "But consumers want a great beef eating experience at an affordable price, and they want to understand how we produce that experience and if it is consistent with their values," Roberts said.

To that end, NCBA staff look at the factors that drive beef demand, and they know that there are loyal beef eaters who eat beef three or more times a week. There are also what NCBA calls the "movable middle," or moderates who eat beef two meals a week. There's also the negative eaters, for whom safety, production practices and prices far outweigh the craving of beef and don't eat it on a regular basis. It's in that "movable middle" that NCBA sees as an opportunity, Roberts said.

"In simple terms, how do we move up the moveable middle to eat one more meal per week?" Roberts asked. Turns out, people just want to know that they are getting a good value for their money, that beef is safe and nutritious, and that how you produced what they feed their families is consistent with their values, Roberts said.

Roberts said in creating the Beef Industry Long Range Plan, NCBA found that for the 150 million or more Baby Boomers in the United States, those ages 40 to 60 years, nutrition is a strong factor in beef purchases. But then come along the Millennials, those aged 12 to 30 years, who think differently and are driven by social media messaging, Roberts explained.

"Image is incredibly important," Roberts said. "They want to understand where beef comes from, why and if what we are doing to the animal will have long-term effects to their own health." But there's a window of opportunity with those Millennials, he added. Their consumption tends to peak at 18 and will drop off from there until it peaks again when they're in their late 40s. "If we have the youngest segment at 12 years old, what do we do to influence how they look at beef the next six years of their lives, and more important, for their long-term view of beef for the next 20 years?" Roberts asked.

Consumer research

In an answer to this, NCBA, with several other agricultural industry groups, has been using consumer research methodologies perfected by the Barack Obama presidential campaign in 2008. The methodology tests the intellectual and emotional reactions of focus groups to targeted messages in controlled environments. As he explained, the research looks at what is said, and then gets feedback as far as what the consumer hears and comprehends.

"What we found when we looked at influencers on the Millennial generation, while we talk about producing enough to feed the world and beef fits in that diet, they say, 'yeah, I hear you, but what's in it for me?'" Roberts said. This credibility gap hurts, and it is easy to get defensive, he warned cattlemen, but the industry has to be able to communicate truth in a way that consumers will hear it. This research, along with other activities like the Beef Quality Audit and participation in U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance are helping target the message.

"How do we go about telling the beef story in a way that demonstrates our continued improvement to product integrity and eating satisfaction?" Roberts asked. In a word, it starts with you the cattlemen, he said.

Social media

Social media plays a vital role in that, Williams explained to TCFA members. Where once paid advertising and earned media impressions were the only ways to reach consumers, now social media allows a direct connection through Facebook, Twitter and more.

"We can take our story directly to the consumer through social media," Williams said. "We don't have to go through the filter of the media anymore." And, while that is an opportunity, it's also a challenge because social media makes everyone a reporter, he added.

Williams walked TCFA Chairman Jim Peters through setting up his own Facebook account, and then discussed how to use it and Twitter as advocacy tools and how they can be used to follow breaking news as it spreads.

He gave the example of following the Lean Finely Textured Beef story in real time on Twitter via ABC News reporter Jim Avila's Twitter account and others using the hashtag #pinkslime. Hashtags are just a way for Twitter followers to follow along on a conversation about a topic, he explained.

"Now, Jim Avila's the guy that broke the LFTB story, or as he referred to it 70-some times over the course of two weeks, 'pink slime,'" Williams said. "I found it interesting what he was tweeting when he was in the midst of doing those stories. He was tweeting back and forth with followers some things that would give indication in a lawsuit his motives in reporting the story."

Social media also tends to spread stories like wildfire. In the LFTB example, "We talk about Twitter 'blowing up,'" Williams said. That could mean millions of tweets per second are being tweeted in a particular conversation, and many of those are from activist organizations and bloggers that direct the conversation, he added. The conversation went from one blogger with an online petition against LFTB, to a lot of people talking about "pink slime" online all of a sudden, to mothers calling their schools and saying they don't want LFTB in the school lunches anymore to three plants closing, Williams said.

"What's as important as all that is we lost 10 to 12 pounds of beef that could be used in school lunch programs to produce the protein kids need in an economical way," Williams said. "That's a travesty."

"I would say, in my career that was unprecedented in how the conversation took off," he said. But NCBA mobilized its Masters of Beef Advocacy graduates to use their blogs, Twitter and Facebook accounts to share the message and hopefully help the beef cause.

"I think we can make a difference in the future if we get more people active and involved in social media," Williams said.

With an open attitude and the willingness to answer questions, cattlemen can put words to their actions and help consumers understand the beef industry.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or

Date: 12/10/2012


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