As we know from everyday life, when we assume we understand someone else’s preferences, desires or concerns, we’re often wrong. The beef industry is learning that lesson with regards to consumers. Before we can understand what they want, we need to ask them. And even then it isn’t simple.

In presentation to the International Livestock Congress last week in Denver, John Lundeen, who serves as NCBA’s senior executive director of market research outlined some of the ongoing efforts to learn more about beef consumers, and what those studies reveal.

The good news is that most consumers love beef, and the right kinds of messages could motivate many of them to consume more of it. There are however, some disconnects or misconceptions the industry needs to address.

Take for example consumer perceptions of “beef” versus their perceptions of “cattle production.”  In a consumer survey, researchers found that 72 percent of respondents believe the positives of beef strongly outweigh or somewhat outweigh the negatives, with the rest believe the negatives of beef strongly or somewhat outweigh the positives.

They also found a strong correlation with consumption. Consumers who believe the positives strongly outweigh the negatives (group 1) eat beef an average of 2.5 times per week, while those believing the positives somewhat outweigh the negatives (group 2) eat beef an average of two times per week. Among consumers who believe the negatives somewhat outweigh the positives (group 3), beef consumption drops off to 1.5 times per week.

Lundeen notes that if the right messages could move some of group 2 into group 1, and some of group 3 into group 2, beef consumption would rise significantly.

However, when researchers asked consumers for their perceptions of cattle production, the percentage indicating they believe the positives strongly outweigh or somewhat outweigh the negatives dropped to 61 percent, an 11 percent downward shift from their perceptions of beef.

A 2011 feedyard messaging study also showed a disconnect in the ways consumers view beef production. Researchers showed consumers images and asked for their reactions. Shown an image of ranchers on horseback moving cattle across a green pasture, 74 percent of consumers liked the image. Only 40 percent however, believed the picture accurately reflects the beef industry. Shown images of cattle in a feedyard or cattle lined up at a feedbunk, only 23 percent liked the images but around 60 percent believe it reflects the industry.

In today’s age of instant communication, negative messages can spread quickly. In a recent analysis of media coverage of beef, researchers found that in traditional media such as print, radio and television, 42 percent of the stories related to economics, such as the cost of beef and the effects of drought on prices. Twenty-one percent of the stories related to beef safety and another 21 percent were about environmental issues.

But when researchers looked at online social media, the tone tends to be more negative. The analysis showed most social-media discussions of beef focused on safety, nutrition, environment and animal rights. Just 13 percent of the discussions regarded the economics of beef.

So how do we change perceptions? A first step, Lundeen says, is to answer the questions consumers actually are asking, rather than the ones we want them to ask.

The “answers” the industry has been providing tend to focus on feeding the world’s population and keeping food abundant and affordable. But, Lundeen says, those are not the issues consumers are asking about. They generally accept those points and even take them for granted.

Instead, consumers are asking questions about how modern production practices affect their family’s long-term health. They are asking about the ways farmers and ranchers treat their animals and they are asking about environmental impacts of beef production.

Messages that resonate in consumer research include those stressing that beef producers are working improve production practices, treat cattle humanely and protect the environment while producing safe, healthy food.

In the same feedyard messaging study mentioned above, researchers found that messages relating to human health are critical for consumer confidence. However, providing information about cattle care, cattle diets and human involvement with cattle in the feedyard resonated strongly with consumers. Many, for example, did not realize feedyards use professional nutritionists to formulate healthy diets for cattle or that pen riders interact with cattle every day as they check for health problems.

Remember those groups from earlier, where group 1 believe the positives of beef strongly outweigh the negatives, group 2 believe positives somewhat outweigh the negatives and group 3 believe negatives of somewhat outweigh the positives? After exposure to the messages about cattle care and nutrition, along with other positive, factual information about cattle feeding, 23 percent of those in group 2 moved up to group 1, and 43 percent of those in group 3 moved up to group 2, suggesting their beef consumption also would increase.

However, for 22 percent of the consumers initially in group 1, their perceptions of cattle feeding actually declined somewhat after learning more about the process, indicating some consumers would rather not know more about where there food comes from.

When it comes to perceptions of the technology used in beef production, Lundeen says research has shown 73 percent of consumers are comfortable with it if it improves beef safety, 65 percent if it improves cattle care or comfort and 65 percent if it is for medical treatment. However, those numbers drop to 46 percent for keeping beef prices affordable, 36 percent for helping new farmers get into business and 27 percent for improving lean-beef yield. Seven percent indicate they prefer these technologies are not used at all.