Contemporary beef marketing campaign builds on popular tagline

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Every afternoon in homes across the country, the same refrain can be heard: “Hey! What’s for dinner?” And in the minds of the many consumers hearing that question, a dominant answer has been planted: Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.

click image to zoom Not just planted, in fact. Watered, nourished and cared for over the past two decades, the beef checkoff-developed phrase is an example of highly successful promotion that is the envy of most major companies.

Can its true benefit to producers be quantified? And maybe more important, is it still relevant in this digital age?

“It’s invaluable,” according to Jim Boudreau, who was account director in charge of the “Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner.” effort for the campaign-creating Leo Burnett agency from 1998-2002. “In the food category, it’s one of the most successful taglines ever.”

The reason for the success is simple, Boudreau says, but hard to duplicate. The beef tagline is “declarative, American,” he says. “It resonates with everyone, whether they’re in their 20s or in their 70s.

“We wanted to own that meal,” he says. “The tagline, combined with the other campaign elements, helped accomplish that.”

It wasn’t just an advertising campaign, says Mary Adolf, who was vice president of promotion at the National Live Stock and Meat Board at the time. It was integrated across just about every facet of the industry’s marketing program. “That really helped propel it forward very quickly,” Adolf says.

click image to zoom The campaign had followed another successful campaign, "Beef. Real Food for Real People.", which used celebrities to gain attention and had been created by a different agency. In the early 1990s, though, the industry was going through a huge transformation, modernizing meat cases, creating convenient recipes and identifying new cuts and products that more closely met consumer needs.

The new “Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner.” campaign would refocus on the beef product. The campaign hit the streets in May of 1992 with a 17-month, $42 million campaign that covered a broad range of marketing elements.

“It clicked almost immediately,” says Adolf. “The whole industry got behind it, and saw its potential. We worked hard to find a tagline that would endure and could be owned by the beef industry – something that could resonate with consumers and communicate what we were trying to convey.”

Don Sonnier, a beef producer from Bossier City, La., was the chairman of the Beef Industry Council Advertising Committee when the campaign was first introduced. He says there was almost unanimous consensus among producer volunteer committee members that this tagline would be a success. “I can’t remember any arguing about it,” Sonnier says. “The committee suggested only very minor changes. It looked like it was going to be a home run, and it was.”

Epic Staying Power       

Just how large of a home run certainly can be quantified. Research shows that almost every year, more than eight of 10 consumers have at some point seen or heard the tagline. About half of consumers can recite the beef industry tagline unaided – despite the fact that television advertising hasn’t been conducted for a decade. It’s an enviable measure by any standard.

“Most companies would love to have that kind of success,” says Adolf, who is now executive director of the International Pizza Hut Franchise Holders Association. According to Adolf, Pizza Hut has had about a half dozen campaigns over the last decade, searching for the kind of mental imagery and staying power that the beef industry has enjoyed. She also points to companies like United Airlines, which has returned to its “Fly the Friendly Skies” tagline after discarding it in 2010 following more than 30 years of success.

“The ‘Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner.’ theme has stood the test of time,” says Adolf. “That’s a rare thing – to find a slogan that can do that. It’s almost unheard of today.”

Jennifer Houston, a beef producer from Sweetwater, Tenn., who has served on advertising and numerous other checkoff committees since the 1980s, agrees. “There are not too many brands that have had this kind of sticking power – and relevance,” she says. “At the time the first ‘Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner.’ campaign got started, I don’t think anybody thought it (the beef tagline) would have lasted as long as it has. We were so proud of what it became.”

What it became, in fact, was something much larger than a tagline.

“’Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner.’ is worked into everything we do,” according to Martin Roth, manager of the marketing, advertising and new media program for the beef checkoff. “It’s not just a tagline – it’s the brand. It’s the authority for all things beef.”

click image to zoom Roth says the credibility of the beef industry’s message has been enhanced significantly because of the beef industry’s efforts to develop an identity over the last two decades. “It’s established in the consumer mindset from all of the years of producer investment (through the checkoff) in it,” he says. “Consumers and others look to ‘Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner.’ and have confidence in it. It’s who we are. And it’s really paying off for farmers and ranchers.”

Digital Communications

Houston says because of the investment producers made through their Beef Checkoff Program at the beginning of the first campaign, a foundation has been established. “We don’t always have to come up with something new,” she says. “We already have something that we know works.”

She says all of those putting checkoff dollars to work can use the tagline as a “springboard for what they want to get across” – including state beef councils, which leverage the message for numerous efforts that reach consumers on state and regional bases.

According to Houston, the efforts only work, though, if the right message reaches the intended target. Today, the method of conveying the message has changed significantly.

The 1992 campaign included an initial $20.5 million advertising budget, using mostly television, magazine and radio. Today, the strategy is to reach millennials through a targeted digital approach that shows up on their laptops, tablets, handheld mobile devices and computers with information they need, when they need it.

“Digital is the lifeblood of today’s millennial,” Roth said. “It’s the first thing they look at in the morning, and it’s the last thing they look at before they go to bed. A screen is always in front of them.”

Fortunately, he added, the “Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner.” theme is just as effective with today’s consumer as it was when it was introduced in 1992. “Millennials have the same concerns as other generations have had – marriage, kids, finding and preparing meals that the whole family will enjoy,” he says. “But what has changed is the way they get their information. Digital is the way to reach this audience.”

Right Audience, Right Time

Roth says the payoff for the beef industry comes when a campaign moves people to purchase more beef more often. The “Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner.” digital marketing campaign is key to accomplishing that goal for today’s generation.

“The ‘Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner.’ digital campaign is the solution,” he says. “It targets the right people at the right time.”

Unlike mass media, which reaches some people who have no interest in the product, Roth describes digital media as an “under-the-radar” approach that is “a different delivery system that is laser-focused on the person needing beef information or who would benefit from specific beef information. While it’s one-on-one communication through a consumer’s computer, it’s also across millions of people.”

The campaign aims to direct consumers to its flagship website – BeefItsWhatsForDinner.com. The site houses recipes, tips, nutrition, safety and other information that consumers want and need. Various digital elements drive consumers to that site, including:

  • Banner Ads on sites like AllRecipes.com and MensFitness.com, which inspire consumers to think about their dinner tonight with beef photos, recipes and bits of information. The ads and sites are targeted toward consumers who have health and recipes on their minds.
  • Search Advertising on engines such as Bing and Google, for people proactively searching for information on recipes and food information, but who may not have beef on their minds.
  • A “Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner.” Facebook page, with more than 830,000 fans who receive recipe posts with photos on a regular basis, and who are encouraged to visit the flagship website.
  • Collaboration with other established recipe and nutrition-related websites, such as Martha Stewart.com, which will imbed beef recipes and tips directly on their sites.
  • Videos that run before online television shows, using both recipe and non-recipe approaches.
  • Other “cutting edge” elements in digital marketing that allow the industry to target millennial consumers who might be in the market to purchase beef.

click image to zoom All of these types of information streams are important, says Roth. “There are thousands and thousands of products out there, and they’re all on the Internet,” says Roth. “But they remain hidden on the Internet unless they’re promoted. We need to be targeting the right people, and targeting them when they’re in the right frame of mind.”

According to Roth, using a digital approach to marketing is very cost effective and efficient, since its aim is to focus on those who are in a position to purchase the product, not those who aren’t. “Digital provides a new, more surgical approach to the industry’s opportunities,” he says.

A Great Run

Though they couldn’t have predicted how it would eventually be used, beef producers who sent the “Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner.” theme on its mission can take satisfaction today in what it has created. “We didn’t have any inkling that it would become what it has,” says Houston, who now serves as Federation of State Beef Councils vice chair.

According to Boudreau, the success so far has been tremendous, though changes in implementation were inevitable. “A tagline needs to be continually nurtured,” he says. “It needs to evolve.”

But the value to beef farmers and ranchers? No question, says Houston. “It’s been priceless. It has really built tons of brand equity.”


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