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Monday, November 17, 2014

Checkoff-funded beef innovation targets the Millennial market

by Kerry Halladay, Associate Editor

One industry detail you’ve likely seen bandied about since summer is the return on investment numbers for the Beef Checkoff Program. For every dollar invested in the checkoff, the program has reportedly returned about $11.20 to the beef industry. But dollars alone don’t capture the value of the research and development work being done to open new markets and build domestic beef demand.

Last week, the Beef Innovations Group (BIG) debuted some of their recent checkofffunded work on the consumer end of the beef supply chain.

Central to all of the presentation was a focus on marketing to the Millennial consumer. Loosely defined as the generation born between 1980-2000, Millennials are 80 million strong and currently the largest generational demographic in America. They are also one of the most perplexing to marketers.

When it comes to food, Millennials are marked by their desire for healthful options, interest in ethnic foods, concern for where their food comes from, willingness to try new things and a desire to do it themselves, but an extreme lack of knowledge when it comes to cooking beef.

Perhaps the most pressing detail to marketers: Millennials are the young parents of today, holding the key to beef consumption for the generation they are raising. At the moment, lack of familiarity with cooking beef and a need for fast, convenient, inexpensive, perceived healthful options is driving Millennial parents to other proteins.

New cuts

New fabrication techniques that identify and separate out “new” muscles are helping add value to the carcass and value-added products for consumers.

Bridget Wasser, Senior Director of Meat Science and Technology at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) gave the recent win of the Flat Iron steak, a new favorite, as an example of the value of checkoff-funded muscle profiling research. She explained how the time and effort that goes into fabricating the now-popular Flat Iron steak has helped add value for both producers and consumers.

The Flat Iron is the secondmost tender muscle in the whole carcass and is growing in popularity with consumers. The effort of identifying and separating it out has added value from the traditionally lower-value chuck portion of the carcass. On the marketing side, Flat Irons are being marketed as a convenient, easy-to-cook cut.

As of publishing, the trimmed Choice chuck shoulder clod weighted wholesale average was $2.85 per pound. A local Kroger grocery store in the Denver area was selling vacuum-packed Flat Iron at $8.99 per pound. The Flat Iron cut represents about 2-3 lbs. of each chuck shoulder clod, which is about 27 lbs. total.

Recipes and photos

NCBA Senior Executive Director of Market Research John Lundeen told the audience that Millennials, while not having the native knowledge on how to cook beef, are eager to learn, and online sources of information are key. Lauren Hagan, Senior Director of Culinary at the Beef Culinary Innovation Center told the audience that the number one destination on the “Beef, It’s What’s For Dinner” website is the recipe section.

Those recipes aren’t just any, either. Hagan discussed the lengths at which the over 5,000 beef recipes available to consumers online are tested, analyzed, and reworked.

“Once we get [recipe] concepts finalized, we go into testing.”

She told the audience the recipes are tested at least three times in the NCBA test kitchen. If the recipe doesn’t work as suggested, it is sent back.

“If it’s not a great recipe, we’ll ditch it and start over.”

Food photography is a big deal with the recipes as well, though it might seem like an unrelated issue at first. But that again is an effort at appealing to Millennials, a generation who rely heavily on social media and have a habit of taking and sharing pictures of food.

“Millennials are very, very visual. Very visual,” stressed Hagan, “So it’s really important for us to take pictures that are not only food shots, but are also enjoyment shots.”

High quality food imagery with attached recipes has been a way to pursue the Millennial market on social media. Image-sharing outlets like Pinterest are quite popular among Millennials, particularly women.

New packaging and strategies

Among some of the most unique innovations presented were new packaging and labeling strategies. Shenoa French, Director of Innovation & Product Solutions, and Steve Wald, Executive Director of Beef Innovation, presented some of the key difficulties beef faces with the Millennial market and what is being done to create solutions for those.

French, as well as Lundeen, pointed out that the time associated with thawing or preparing beef is one of the largest “obstacles to eating beef” for Millennials. The majority of Millennials also make dinner decisions after 4:30 p.m. and want a meal that can be prepared in 30 minutes or less.

Several new packaging effort prototypes were shared that attempt to address this thawing and quick beef preparation:

Self-draining microwavable ground beef bag— This packaging prototype was made of a special microwave-safe plastic and contained a vacuum-sealed, flatpacked pound of ground beef.

The ground beef was fully cooked, browned, and the design of the bag collected the grease into an attached reservoir for easy cleanup. The packaging includes instructions on cooking time based on appliance wattage and whether the ground beef is frozen or fresh. The cooked, crumbled ground beef is suitable for many meals such as spaghetti sauce, taco meat, burritos, etc.

Microwave roasting bags—Following a similar theme, the audience was presented with fresh tri-tips vacuum-sealed in microwavable cooking bags. The bags included instructions on microwave times. During the presentation, a participant “cooked” a 2-lb. tri-tip the audience later sampled by placing it into the microwave, cooking it for 17 minutes at 50 percent power, then resting it for 15 minutes. The result was an evenly medium rare tri-tip that looked ovenroasted in slightly over 30 minutes with no preparation. It tasted no different than a traditionally cooked roast.

Slow cooker bags—Combining the ideas of a selfdraining cooking bag and the convenience of the slow cooker, a “pot-roast-in-a-bag” was presented. Inside the bag was a medium-sized chuck roast with basic seasoning. It was simply placed in the slow cooker, then retrieved later in the day. The beef was cooked through, could be “shredded” by hand through the plastic because of the tenderness, and all juices were trapped in an attached reservoir. Again, there was no preparation aside from putting the bag in the appliance and then removing it to serve.

Other strategies presented included a communication campaign to instruct consumers on an easy, three-minute way to defrost a pound of beef in the microwave without cooking it and “recipe kits” featuring beef as the central ingredient for three included recipes, but allowing customers to choose and adapt the item to their tastes.

Presenters reminded the audience that we—as part of the beef industry—are not the typical Millennial consumer. These prototype products and marketing strategies are aimed at an audience that general lacks beef cooking knowledge, wants fresh “real” meals quickly, and are pressed for time in terms of dinner-time decisions. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor