Panel Debates Antibiotic Branding

5/17/2014 7:00 AM
By Katelyn Parsons D.C. Correspondent

WASHINGTON — Certified Angus Beef offers a “natural” brand. Perdue Farms offers its HarvestLand brand. And Panera Bread Co. has marketed its company brand by offering all-natural, antibiotic-free chicken. In fact, all of these brands are advertised as antibiotic-free, which is a key message to consumers.

On May 8, representatives from those companies joined the Animal Ag Alliance at its 2014 Stakeholders Summit to discuss antibiotics and antibiotic-free branding.

“The debate isn’t about whether we should use antibiotics or not,” said Joe Forsthoffer, Perdue Farms Inc. director of corporate communications. “It’s a debate to find a product that consumers are comfortable purchasing that maintains humane health standards.”

He said talking to consumers about antibiotics is futile since most consumers are making decisions based on emotion.

“Even if consumer feelings aren’t rational” about antibiotics “their emotions still are valuable,” he said.

“Food and science are two words that consumers don’t like hearing,” Forsthoffer continued. “Consumers are looking for a deeper connection to their food and basing their decisions on feelings. We have to realize that emotions are driving the debate. This can be frustrating for the agricultural community, but if we don’t respect the feelings of the consumers, they don’t respect us.”

Many companies have begun offering a wide variety of brands in response to these issues.

“It’s about choices,” said Dr. John Stika, Certified Angus Beef president. “When we offer choices, we tend to win. But I don’t want to blow our success out of proportion. Ninety-eight percent of consumers still purchase our traditional brand and only about 2 percent purchase our brand extension,” the natural brand, he said.

However, for Panera Bread Co., the goal is to be ahead of what the consumer wants.

“It’s a journey, not a destination,” said Dan Kish, Panera Bread’s head chef and vice president of food. “We want to give the customers something they didn’t know they needed. When we do this, they tend to react positively.”

According to Forsthoffer, this is hard to do when the whole debate is being amplified through social media channels. Social media allows consumers to self-select where they get their information and what information they read and comprehend.

“Marketing is responding to issues that are out there in consumer space,” Forsthoffer said. “As a company that markets agricultural products, our survival depends on listening to our consumers.”

Kish said the promotional effort for these brands can be tricky. He said that it’s important that everyone understands the wording, but at the same time not disparage another type of agriculture.

“When we launched our natural brand, we were worried consumers would consider the other brand unnatural,” Stika said. “What we found was consumers shopped for their wants and needs and didn’t shop across categories.”

Certified Angus Beef makes it clear in it’s messaging that both the natural and traditional brand are wholesome, safe and meet consumer taste requirements.

All of the panelists indicated taste was the main factor for consumer preference.

“Taste comes first,” Kish said. “However, we have always been very transparent with what is on our menu. In fact, we were one of the first restaurants to put calories on our menu before it was required.”

Millennials expect agriculture to be accountable in every segment of production, according to Stika. They want a genuine message that is open and honest.

“For all of us, this is an opportunity to build our consumer’s trust in our brand,” Forsthoffer said, adding that there is no such thing as traditional demographics anymore. “We know that consumer attitudes are changing quickly and not all are science- or fact-based.”

For Panera Bread Co., staying ahead of these issues can help “leverage the Panera brand.”

“We’ve stopped reacting to individual crisis that happen weekly in the food world and started to take a global look at all of our food,” Kish said.

However, there is not one right way to raise food around the world, according to Forsthoffer. He said agriculture “needs to create products responsibly while being transparent to all stakeholders.”

“The challenge remains how do we solve these problems that are put in front of us,” Stika said.

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