Processed Meat, Cancer and the Surprising Marketing Strategy

The World Health Organization classified processed meat as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1), based on sufficient evidence (over 800 studies) that the consumption of processed meat increases the chance of colorectal cancer. They report that 50g of processed meat a day – less than two slices of bacon – increased the chance of developing colorectal cancer by 18%.

  • Consumer Insights & Trends
  • Strategy
by Braden Douglas
October 28, 2015

This is not good news if you’re in the pork or meat business.

The meat industry, in general, has certainly seen its share of issues from the 2008 Maple Leaf Foods listeriosis outbreak to the 2012 XL Foods e coli recall; even the West Coast avian flu epidemic. So how is this report from the World Health Organization any different?

For starters, this issue directly affects the nature of the product itself. It’s not an isolated food safety issue or unlucky virus that found its way into barns. It’s an issue that cannot be mitigated by human intervention or crisis management, unless the WHO rescinds its report entirely, which is highly unlikely, this information will continue to inform consumer decisions.

So, where does that leave the pork/meat industry? What should hundreds of meat processors do now?

What is the marketing strategy they should employ next? What advice should the marketing team be giving to their organization?

Expect Slow, Long-Term Behavioural Change.

Meat processors should expect a slow and gradual decline in sales as consumer behaviour and consumption patterns begin to shift – but it won’t fall off a cliff overnight. You will see more information coming out and a slow consumer trend towards meat avoidance at specific usage occasions. Instead of bacon and eggs in the morning, they might go for a veggie omelet. We’re seeing the rise in vegan, vegetarian, and flexitarian lifestyle choices and I don’t believe that growth will stop.

Beware of the Comparable Message.

Meat industry lobbyists, and the scientists they employ, will attempt to contradict the findings with their own research. More importantly, they should be very aware of any message that implies processed meat and smoking are similar in their cancer risk profile. The public loves contrasting and edgy imagery. Smoking increases your risk of cancer by 86%, where processed meats (over 50g/day) increases your risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. They are very different. I would have lawyers on ready to ensure no media source makes that comparison.

Reposition as an Indulgent Product.

Consumers love the taste of processed meat. They now know it’s not as good for them just as we know a lot of sugar or alcohol is not good for us either. Taste is the number one benefit of a food product for consumers. Focus on taste and the “treat” that processed meat is, knowing consumers can still enjoy it in moderation but wait until early spring (i.e. Super Bowl) for key messaging to start as the news and New Years’ resolutions will lose impact by that time.

Portion Control Solutions.

If consumer behaviour forces lower consumption, but it’s still a product they like, the next solution is to introduce portion control packaging over the next few years. Smaller sizes that can boast “Now 30% Less” messaging can attract the low occasional consumer. Aligning your product with a subtle belief such as “I shouldn’t eat too much of this” can be a good way to maintain some volume while ensuring consumers are being responsible with their health.

Diversify your Portfolio.

Processed meat is not a growth industry and probably never will be again…at least not in a major way. The key decision from ownership and senior leaders is how to start diversifying the portfolio in the long-term. What core competencies are transferable to new categories? What key brand values do you have now that could spread into new brand extensions or product lines? For example, Maple Leaf has shifted its position from “meat” to “protein”. This can enable them to introduce new plant-based proteins into their portfolio without creating brand confusion.

I realize these recommendations are very cursory, but I hope they start you thinking down specific paths. I’m thankful for the World Health Organization and their courage to research, report and stand behind the results that will help society. Managing the fallout of those reports and helping organizations who are now affected by them is the true test of professional service providers.

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