When you think of consumers and beef quality, the quantitative traits such as quality grades like Prime or Choice, or the Warner-Bratzler Shear Force measure of tenderness probably jump to the forefront in your mind. While these are scien-tific measures the industry uses to determine what might lead to a good consumer eating experience, they don’t necessarily drive consumers’ decisions to purchase beef. Consumers, however, look less and less at those industry measures of quality as a gauge of a good eating experience.

Unfortunately, there’s no one factor that makes consumers choose beef. Instead, it’s a number of perceptions that feed into each other, with each perception spilling over into another.

Defining quality

Over the last several years there has been research that links consumer eating satisfaction to juiciness, beef flavor and tenderness, says John Lundeen, executive director of market research for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. That body of research was evaluated and used to refine new research into consumers’ perceptions of beef.

Over the last two years, beef industry researchers have used focus groups to evaluate consumers and better understand what drives beef demand. The ongoing tracking of these beef perceptions is conducted two times a year, with 1,500 consumers participating in January 2007 and 3,000 this past July.

“We now have a new tool that looks at the consumer perceptions that link to increased beef satisfaction. That gets us past physical product quality — such as quality grades, yield grades and tenderness — and moves into the importance of nutrition, versatility and safety to give us a broader definition of beef quality,” Lundeen says.

Currently, the research has found six key drivers, or buckets as Lundeen explains, of beef perceptions among consumers.

1. Eating experience Consumers want a meal that feels special, a meal that feels like a treat. They want food that satisfies a craving and has great taste. They also want products that allow them to experience different flavors while also satisfying their appetite. To provide this product, those scientific measures of tenderness, juiciness and flavor help the industry fulfill those expectations. Those measures also provide ways to improve upon the final beef product through genetic selection and optimal management of the animal on the ranch.

2. Fuel for the body The health and nutrition factor has held some consumers back from choosing beef. This presents an opportunity for the industry, since beef is proven to be a good source of protein and provides vitamins and nutrients not found in other protein sources. Consumers want protein that gives them energy and is not overly processed.

3. Preparation/convenience/confidence Consumers want food that is easy to prepare and prepare well, Lundeen says. They also want repeatability. If they cook it and it tastes a certain way and they enjoyed it, they want to attain that same level of satisfaction the next time.

4. Budget Consumers want to get their money’s worth and want foods that help them stay within a budget.

5. Nutrition Consumers want a product that is low in fat, particularly saturated fat, and is low in calories. They want a nutritious meal that is not too heavy and fits into a balanced diet. They also want food that is easy to digest. “Consumers have general nutrition information, but we need to continue to communicate specifics on how beef meets nutritional needs,” Lundeen says.

6. Safety Food safety is expected among consumers so they want a product that is “extremely” safe to eat.

Marketing moves

With so many perceptions going into consumers’ purchasing decisions, marketing efforts will soon target messages addressing those first two perceptions: eating experience and fuel for the body.

“Starting in 2008, the new marketing programs will focus on two campaigns, one healthful and one enjoyment,” says Kim Essex, NCBA vice president of brand strategy and communications. “The ‘Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner’ is a powerful slogan, but it’s also flexible, so the messages created will fit these two perception buckets.”

Essex adds that the messages will focus on the “cravability” of beef and how it fits into a healthy lifestyle. Beef checkoff funds have been designated to get these messages out, not only to consumers but influencers, like doctors and nutritionists, as well. But the key message is that consumers can feel good about loving beef, Lundeen says.

Other factors

Within all those perceptions, there are other values that some consumers may choose when deciding what determines “quality” in their minds.

For instance, there’s a growing trend toward organic foods. According to the National Marketing Institute data, the meat, poultry and fish segment is the fastest growing of the organic food market and is projected to jump 15 percent. In terms of the natural/organic beef’s dollar share in the marketplace, it accounts for 1.7 percent of total beef sales, according to NCBA data. But that number continues to slowly inch higher year after year.

Other factors, like where an animal was raised and slaughtered, and how it was handled, may create a perception of quality and have importance to some consumers. Right now, there’s not a lot of research on that subject in the beef industry, Lundeen says. But there are some movements pushing consumers to purchase locally grown products, as well as products certified to be raised under certain animal-welfare standards.

Add to the U.S. consumers’ views of quality the growing global consumers’ views on quality. Export markets will continue to present opportunities for the beef industry. The industry’s goal is to increase beef exports to 3 billion pounds by 2010. To do that, continued work will need to occur to understand what those new consumers want from beef.