Fake Meat Marketing Provides a Lesson

By Will Verboven, Contributing Editor

I expect many in the cattle and beef business are somewhat dismayed at all the free publicity garnered by the fake hamburger marketers. The implication of all the promotion is that “plant-based” burgers are better than “real meat” burgers. That’s not the case of course, but it doesn’t matter as the marketing goal is to make consumers think it is better and get them to buy the product. That’s the prime motive in marketing almost anything. We know this well in the beef marketing business with such labeling as Certified Angus Beef®, corn-fed beef, Alberta Beef, etc. Every one of them is better than the other, right?

Interestingly, virtually all the fake burger advertising prominently features the words “plant-based.” Those promoting the product know that this is the only real claim they can use to an advantage over real beef burgers. That’s because marketers don’t want consumers to think about the witch’s brew of ingredients it takes to make fake burgers. They also don’t want to attract any attention to the highly processed nature of a product with less than stellar nutritive benefits.

The secondary marketing angle is to emphasize that they taste, look and feel like real meat burgers. Again, the goal is to deflect from what these products are really made from. If fake burger sales are any indication, that marketing approach has been wildly successful. Just about every food retailer is offering the fakes for sale – except for the fast food industry giant, McDonald’s. That could change over night, though.

Speculation continues as to why McDonald’s hasn’t jumped on the bandwagon. Some attribute the delay to the company’s gigantic scope and that fake burger manufacturers are not presently able to fulfill McDonald’s supply needs. Perhaps fake burgers are just not cheap enough for the global giant.

One also expects that McDonald’s has studied the economics of introducing a new product and whether it will last beyond being just a fad. This company has long, painful experiences when it comes to trends; they probably recall their pizza-making fiasco, and salads are another dubious idea they had. In the end, they may still join the crowd, but right now, they remain true to their “real beef” burger roots.

In Canada, McDonald’s has doubled down and initiated a campaign that their burgers are now juicier, hotter and better than ever. They are also emphasizing that their burgers are made with 100 percent real Canadian beef. That’s not an entirely new advertising approach, but it looks like they are placing more focus on the “real beef” perspective.

I suspect the company’s marketing brain trust may have determined that the weakness of fake burgers is that they are just that – “fake” – and not “real.” By emphasizing the “real” factor, you play into the consumer’s perception that “real,” meaning genuine, is always better than fake.

Which gets to my point – maybe all beef promotion in North America should take a lesson from the plant-based, fake meat marketers. All real meat promotions should have the words “Real Beef” or “Only Real Beef Used” or “Accept No Substitutes for Real Beef” or “Only Real Beef is All-Natural” or other phrases just like marketers use with the “plant-based” verbiage. I suspect that is what McDonald’s may be testing in Canada by more prominently featuring its phrase, “100% Canadian Beef.” If it works, I can see this approach being used in the United States with “Real American Beef.”

I believe it’s the overall North American cattle and beef industry that needs to get behind a continent-wide “Real Beef is Better” campaign. To be fair, some industry marketing organizations have been testing the waters with specific “real beef” promotions, but on a limited scale. Sometimes I sense our beef marketing agencies can be too timid about not just defending beef’s image and perception, but also about making bolder, no-holds-barred, pro-active promotion campaigns.

They all do great work and are successful, but I think producers are hoping for a gutsier public approach that gets in the consumer’s face. I would suggest that this is particularly true of the plant-based advertising onslaught that implies it is somehow better than existing real meat burgers.

I expect some marketers would advise that taking the high road is a better response and that reacting to a specific threat only gives more credence to that competing product. There is the advertising rule that negative, reactionary promotion does not work, but telling folks that real is better strikes me as a positive approach. In fact, I suspect a lot of meat consumers want to hear that message to reinforce their own perception of meat and that fake is indeed second best and inferior. I believe the industry is missing out on that opportunity to reassure consumers about real meat.

Finally, consider this piece of advertising history. Back in 2012, the beef industry was broadsided by the “pink slime” spectacle. It gave the beef industry’s image something of a black eye. I would suggest images of plant-based and chemical ingredients being prepared in huge vats for fake burger production would present a rather unappetizing picture to consumers. It could be called “coarse brown slime” before they add red coloring to the concoction. I expect that image is being carefully kept secret.