By Will Verboven, Contributing Editor

I’m sure each one of those quality claims is disputed by competitors and, with beef, there are plenty of claims by a bewildering collection of marketers. Canadian beef merchandisers have been at the retail brand promotion game for a long time, but it has a checkered history, fraught with politics and some reluctance – which is probably the Canadian way. In retail marketing, quality is in the eye of the beholder, or so one is led to believe by marketing psychology and consumer mythology. Brown eggs are better, Vermont maple syrup is the best, Kentucky Bourbon is the benchmark, and of course, barley-fed Canadian beef is the world gold standard.

Beef promotion in Canada sort of started back in the 1960s when processors started to promote Alberta Beef in eastern Canada as a quality brand. It was somewhat of an accidental claim as it was more related to the Canadian consumer perception that, as Alberta was home to cowboys, Rocky Mountains, wide open spaces, and most of Canada’s cattle, their beef must be the best. That perceived Alberta quality image persists to this day. However, because of cattle industry politics in Canada, that merchandising opportunity is not pursued much anymore. There is a political notion that beef marketing within Canada must be promoted on a generic or national basis. Hence most marketing money is poured into “Canadian Beef” or the “Canadian Beef Advantage” or just plain “Canada Beef” brands.

When Canada entered the offshore beef export market in a significant way with the creation of the Canada Beef Export Federation promotion agency, “Canada Beef” was the chosen label. As the newcomer on the international stage, Canadian beef was faced with fearsome competition from established big dogs like U.S. beef and Australian beef. What was an eager greenhorn beef marketer to do? Well, they discovered that small advantages could translate into big perceptions.

The now-classic marketing angle was the discovery that Japanese beef eaters preferred white fat over yellow fat on their meat – they perceive color as a sign of quality. Canadian barley-fed beef produced white fat compared to American corn-fed beef which produced, at times, a yellow-tinged fat. As dubious as that may be to any quality claim, it’s a marketing perception that Canadian beef marketers exploit to this day.

However, the main retail marketing angle being pursued today involves the image of Canada as a land of clean water, fresh air, unspoiled land and beautiful scenery, all of which produces the best beef in the world. It’s all fair in the marketing game – Angus beef is better than Hereford beef, right?

Until about 10 years ago, Canadian beef wasn’t marketed as a branded product in the U.S. Because of the long-established integrated North American beef market, no differentiation was made – cattle and beef changed nationalities once they crossed the border either way. There was an unofficial understanding between the U.S. Meat Export Federation and the Canadian Beef Information Centre not to promote their own beef in the other’s country.

That understanding ended with the creation of Canada Beef Inc., a unified Canadian beef merchandising agency with a mandate to promote Canadian beef anywhere in the world. A ten-year battle with the American government over the now defunct COOL legislation also helped change the hands-off approach toward Canadian beef promotion in the U.S.

Some distinct “Canadian Beef” promotion and merchandising has been done in the U.S., but it is limited at best. Merchandising efforts have been targeted at selective U.S. regional markets and high-end chain grocery stores. For Canadian-based processors to get involved in such brand promotion efforts, they have to be able to extract a significant premium, otherwise it’s just not worth the logistical effort.

The same is true for American beef coming to Canada (at times the largest export market for U.S. beef). It’s just so much easier for the big beef processors to treat North America as one big market and to sell just “beef,” no matter which country it comes from – consumers being none the wiser.

That marketing approach (reality?) does cause one to ponder – if most consumers can’t tell the difference, why bother promoting any beef? Well, that’s the beauty of marketing. It’s what has made our capitalist system the best in the world. If gullible American consumers can be convinced to buy Canadian-branded beef, then they must be right – Canadian beef is better! Or should it be Canadian (Angus/Hereford/whatever) beef is better? It’s all in the marketing.

E-mail comments to willverboven@hotmail.com