The health benefits from eating beef may be one of the protein’s most powerful, yet frequently unacknowledged, attributes.
Indeed, beef merchandisers are facing the challenge of generating activity from a large base of wellness-conscious shoppers who typically perceive the protein to be less healthy than such alternatives as chicken and turkey.
While beef still is the leading supermarket meat department revenue generator, with 2017 sales of $24.9 billion versus $12.5 billion for chicken, chicken had pound sales of 5.3 billion, higher than the 5.2 billion of beef, states the Power of Meat 2018 report. Power of Meat 2018 is published by the Arlington, Va.-based Food Marketing Institute and the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Meat & Poultry Research & Education and prepared by 210 Analytics LLC, a San Antonio-based market research and marketing strategies firm.
Though today’s beef products are about 30% leaner than in the 1980s, “we still hear the mantra from the medical community that you should limit the amount of red meat,” said Cheryl Hendricks, a registered dietitian and director of foodservice engagement with the Centennial, Colo.-based National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA). “There still is the perception that poultry is healthier and it owns that perception over beef, even though there is more B vitamins, zinc and iron in beef than poultry.”
To alter that outlook, Hendricks said it is crucial that marketers consistently work to educate shoppers on the health attributes of beef.
“Hearing it once is not enough,” she said. “You can share this information but people don’t necessarily grasp and adopt it. They have to see and hear it from multiple places.”
Many meat department shoppers, however, are unlikely to notice signage that spotlights nutritional claims, she said.
“Grocery shoppers are bombarded with information,” Hendricks said. “Most are shopping with an agenda and have a timeline and are not looking to get educated. It is a rushed setting with a lot of noise and it is hard to connect with snippets of information or bullets that will be impactful or even something that someone remembers seeing.”
Educating customers in-store
Instead, merchandisers can educate consumers away from the meat case, such as with print ads, newsletters and phone apps, as well as from in-store cooking demos and by training store associates to speak intelligently about beef’s positive elements, she noted.
“One touch point is not enough,” Hendricks said. “You have to reach consumers in multiple ways.”
That also includes using such vehicles as mobile devices, websites, e-mail and social media, said Kara Behlke, director, health and wellness strategy, for St. Louis-based Schnucks Markets Inc.
Retailers, for instance, can note in their communications that a 3-ounce serving of beef provides more than 10 essential nutrients including protein, iron, zinc and vitamins B12 and B6, she suggested.
“Once they share the story and message, retailers also must have a variety of beef cuts to choose from to make lean beef an easy solution,” Behlke said.
Creating a healthy image, however, can be challenging and will require a commitment to education and repetition, she agreed.
“There are limitations on what can be done in the store or meat department and on the attention span and interest of customers, so retailers need to think through their communication strategy,” she said. “The information and education need to be relevant to shoppers or the message will go unheard.”
As a result, it is important to first understand the target consumers’ shopping habits along with the information they are seeking and the products, services and selections they prefer, Behlke stated. Retailers can garner data through such measures as online shopper panels, focus groups and customer shop-alongs, she noted.
“Retailers need to look at the entire meat department and decide what marketing or product messages will be most meaningful and impactful,” Behlke said. “They also need to avoid providing too many messages or conflicting information as this will undo all the efforts. When everything is ‘the best,’ nothing is.”
Indeed, convincing shoppers that lean beef is just as healthy as other lean proteins remains a challenge, says Jason Pride, vice president of meat and seafood at West Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee Inc.
He noted that Hy-Vee follows a multifaceted beef merchandising strategy that includes using its more than 170 registered dietitians to educate shoppers at the point of purchase in aisles, and including beef in cooking classes and demonstrations, samplings, store nutrition tours and other events.
In addition, the retailer highlights how ground beef can be a great source of nutrition as a first food for children, Pride said. Measures include the use of shelf talkers in the baby aisles and meat department; one-on-one discussions with shoppers; and describing in baby food prep classes how beef supports healthy growth without excess weight gain, supports brain development and provides healthy gut bacteria to help infants’ immune systems.
It also is important to communicate to consumers that there are several lean beef options that can fit into a healthy diet, said Heather Steele, registered dietitian at Tahlequah, Okla.-based Reasor’s Foods, which educates shoppers on beef attributes during store tours, via social media and at events.
“Many consumers can be timid about beef because of its perceived fat content,” she said. “Since lean cuts lack the additional marbling found in other cuts, it also is important to help educate consumers on ways to prepare these cuts to still contain flavor and retain tenderness. Retailers with a dietitian on staff can use their knowledge and influence.”
Prominently spotlighting beef's health attributes also is crucial as many merchandisers incorrectly assume that shoppers are aware of the benefits, added Anne-Marie Roerink, 210 Analytics principal.
She noted that beef was “was put in a negative spotlight” when more consumers began looking to limit their fat intake “and poultry jumped on being the healthier alternative. Protein content is often the largest callout on food packages, yet very few beef items highlight their protein supremacy.”
Nevertheless, getting more consumers to consider the healthy aspects of beef will remain difficult as “changing perceptions that are deeply rooted is hard,” Roerink said. “A digital strategy will be crucially important as food research has largely moved online.”