There’s a West Wing episode where the new hired gun campaign manager for President Bartlet is asked how the campaign is going to sell an unpopular new policy. The campaign manager replies that they just need to do it “the same way PT Barnum sold a truck load of white salmon; by sticking labels on that say ‘guaranteed not to go pink in the can’.”
I just spent the weekend with friends who are parents of young children. Although my friends (and family for that matter) don’t quite know what I do, they know I love all things livestock, meat & dairy so naturally, they had some meat & dairy related commentary.
The first topic was the friend who gave a thorough category review of frozen chicken nuggets with a piercing analysis concluding that Tyson’s all-white meat dino-shaped nuggets reign supreme among parents and children. Apparently, this is sacred ground and substitute products have no place. Hats off to you, Tyson Foods – if my friend gets a dino nugget tattoo I will be zero percent surprised.
The second topic was the friend who recently did a massive amount of research on baby formula because of the formula availability crisis. She went all the way down the rabbit hole trying to identify the very best option on the market. She asked if I knew of a specific type of dairy farm in Europe that is widely recognized by Internet experts as the superior source for ingredients in infant formula.
The questions behind the question were, “does this certification that I’m paying extra for mean that I’m buying formula that really is the highest possible quality for my child? Am I paying for actual quality or is someone just trying to make me feel good or feel like I’m buying high quality?”
I obviously had no idea. I’d never heard of that certification but when I looked it up, it sounded like it was certifying practices that exist on most dairies and/or would have little to no bearing on the quality of milk output. (I didn’t say that to her though – my assumption is that if people want to pay for something that has real or perceived value, that’s the beauty of the free market.)
But the other friend in the conversation started peeling the layers, and asking more questions about common marketing phrases around meat and dairy including the differences in pasture-raised and cage-free eggs.
We were casually kicking these things around (and yes I was trying super hard not to go into full Nerd Mode) when one of them said, “look I don’t know what happens on the farm and I don’t mind whatever it is, I just want to know if something is worth paying extra for or not.”
She then made the analogy that in Arizona, school districts can go through the 3rd party accreditation and audit process to receive an “A+” label. It’s a thorough and resource-intensive process, and often school districts right up the road from a formally certified A+ school can be doing the same right things but the neighboring school didn’t go through the expense and hassle to get the stamp of approval.
The same quality of "product", but one has a stamp of approval and one does not.
This conversation with bright and curious customers of meat and dairy got me thinking about what might be true of marketing in the meat and dairy case:
Value is in the eye of the beholder. And yet, consumers are at the mercy of what they are told….by brands, by influencers, by media.
You know I don’t think the answer is to “educate consumers” or make farm experts out of every person who walks in a grocery store, that’s an absurd objective that sets everyone up for frustration and failure. No one wants to hear us ag people when we activate Nerd Mode!
And yet, when an information vacuum exists, someone fills it. Most consumers are not stupid, but neither do they have the context to be subject matter experts with well-developed BS radars.
So how do we solve for the consumer’s desire for quality, or for a specific attribute, without dumping 160 years of research on them at once?
Ultimately the responsibility falls on brand managers who are marketing a product via a brand, aka monetizing a specific set of features and benefits to a specific set of potential customers.
That’s where the whole suite of decisions are made that send signals downstream to consumers about what to care about, and upstream to producers about what to produce.
But sometimes marketing fails.
The 2 most grievous marketing failures being:
- Where there is a quality difference and the consumer doesn’t know about it (and the producer doesn’t get paid for it).
A marketing failure of UNDER marketing.
- Where there is NOT a quality difference but the consumer is told there is a quality difference, and expected to pay more.
A marketing failure of OVER marketing.
To use the West Wing / PT Barnum analogy, maybe white salmon really is better or maybe we’re just slapping a label on something and calling it better. Smart consumers wanna know the difference.
What do your people say about how they choose meat and dairy products to buy?
Oh, and 10/10 recommend this backdrop for contemplating the complexities of the modern food system: