I think a lot about positioning, especially as it relates to the way the food industry markets its products.

Of course, the poser of positioning isn’t limited to food companies. Every single branded product, in fact, every message, every political slogan, every ad campaign is based on positioning.

The best example to explain what positioning involves is the auto industry. Name a brand, and most people have an immediate perception of how that brand of car or truck is positioned. Mercedes? Quality. Volvo? Safety. Corvette? Performance.

Car makers have spent billions in advertising to hammer these positions into our consciousness, and numerous marketing studies have demonstrated that those efforts have been highly successful. Most of have only vague ideas about where our state legislators stand, or what our county commissioners’ positions might be, but we can regurgitate depth and detail about the positioning of various car brands like we all earned MBAs in marketing.

So the question becomes, what is the meat and poultry industry’s positioning? Although there’s a myriad of products — fresh, frozen and processed — in the marketplace, consider for a moment how anti-industry activists position their attack lines. It’s rarely about an individual company. Even when a brand-name meat or poultry company gets caught up in a product recall due to the threat of a foodborne illness, the criticism never stops at merely condemning the one “bad actor.” Instead, the consumer and animal activist groups always expand their vitriol to include the entire sector — every company that supplies, processes or markets similar products.

So in analyzing positioning and consumer perceptions of the same, it’s really about the entire beef industry, the entire pork industry, and the entire poultry industry.

The Terms that Tempt

The subject of positioning was triggered by a recent news story about a company called Back to the Roots, which launched a line of breakfast cereals back in 2015 that generated lots of publicity and social media chatter.

As I see it, their initial success was based on positioning, and I believe there’s a lesson there for the meat and poultry industry.

Here’s how the food industry website FoodDive.com characterized Back to the Roots’ “been to the mountaintop” marketing mission.

“The Back to the Roots team began exploring farmer, miller and baker relationships and visited small farms and massive industrial mills [notice the phrase “small farms”]. They saw how a popular processing method would strip the wheat bran, wheat germ and wheat germ oil from the grain, leaving an ingredient that is ‘dead, white, refined (and) oftentimes bleached flour’ [notice the negative terms].”

Obviously, the company’s basic positioning is clear, but even as a healthier, more natural alternative marketer, their launch faced twin challenges. First, the cereal category is stagnant; in fact, analysts consider it to be shrinking.

Data from market researcher Mintel show that category revenues declined by 1% in 2015 while unit sales fell by 2.3%, mainly because consumers are opting for more protein, more fiber and more convenience at breakfast.

Second, no matter how nutritious and unrefined the source of wheat may be, the gluten-free movement doesn’t exactly provide the ideal backdrop for the launch of a new ready-to-eat cereal line based on wheat.

The solution was to create a sort of anti-positioning that pits Back to the Roots against the increasingly common perception that cereals ought to be placed in the candy aisle, not the breakfast aisle. And they went head-to-head against the “gluten-free-is-the-way-to-be” meme by positioning their key ingredient as healthier, and thus less likely to trigger allergic reactions, than the commercially sourced milled, refined wheat used by Post, Kellogg’s and General Mills.

Back to the Roots thus capitalized on three of what I call Tier One positioning terms: “natural,” “small,” and “honest.” All are powerful, assuming of course, that they can be backed up by the consumer experience with the product.

In addition to the three noted above, other Tier One terms include:

  • Green
  • Clean
  • Fresh
  • Local
  • Flavorful
  • Artisanal
  • Quality
  • Family
  • Sustainable

Those words are all strongly identified with positive attributes by significant majorities of consumers. But again, it’s not enough to label some product as “green” or “high-quality.” Like car manufacturers have learned the hard way, the product experience has to align almost perfectly with the positioning. Otherwise, an ad campaign becomes counterproductive, which is why (in part) cereal companies’ constant messaging about their sugar-loaded products being “part of a healthy breakfast” hasn’t worked real well.

Here’s my concern. The meat and poultry industries have typically gone to what I call Tier Two terminology to create positioning. Tier Two terms include “nutritious,” “convenient,” “healthy,” “pure,” and the raft of “free-” statements: preservative-free, antibiotic-free, and additive-free.

The challenge is to embrace the Tier One terminology, but with a huge and critically important caveat: The actual product experience has to match the product claims.

Can a food category populated primarily with products that are perceived as mass-produced, not-so-healthy and ecologically suspect successfully live in the Tier One world?

If a previously unknown bunch of Millennials can launch a start-up to go against some of the biggest names in food marketing, it sure seems like there’s space for other entrepreneurs to consider re-positioning animal food products.

The opinion expressed in this column are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator