Five people may provide five different routes to the same destination, and each of those routes may eventually end at the final point. But which route makes the most sense when all of the factors are considered? When deciding how to spend beef checkoff dollars to maximize impact on consumer beef demand, it’s an important question.

Identifying who the beef consumer is and what they want is where it all starts. The national Consumer Beef Index (CBI) is an important tool in describing the beef consumer, according to John Lundeen, senior executive director of market research for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff Program.  Still, it obviously can’t explain everything about every consumer in every part of the country. In fact, when staff and boards at state beef councils take a look at the national numbers they may naturally wonder whether the picture represents their own beef consumers and the best route to reach them.

Nationally, the checkoff-funded CBI was started in 2006 as a “meaningful, actionable, data-driven national performance measure” to meet a beef industry Long Range Plan goal for a mechanism to track goals, according to Lundeen.  He says it has continued on a bi-annual basis through 2015, with 18 “waves” creating a combined national database of more than 19,500 consumers aged 13-65.

The CBI measures changes in consumer perceptions of, and demand for, beef relative to other meat proteins; consumer impressions of beef that could be attributed to the industry’s communications and advertising efforts; areas of relative strength and potential vulnerability for beef sales; and market dimensions having an impact on national communication strategies.

It paints effective pictures of U.S. beef consumers at the national level, Lundeen says, and has been important in the development of national checkoff-funded programs that address consumer demand for beef. But by itself the research doesn’t distinguish between consumers geographically. That’s why since 2007 states have been allowed to customize that index to determine how their consumers differ from national scores for behavior and beliefs regarding beef and its primary competitors.

“The state or regional scoreboards enable state beef council boards to pinpoint their unique areas of strengths or vulnerabilities for beef within their own geographies,” according to Lundeen. “They also identify specific regional competitive challenges, while allowing each to tailor in-market communications strategies to the local culture.”  Or the endpoint is to develop further confidence in rolling out national programs because that state’s consumers mirror national norms on most variables.  

 So, what are the nuances to date? Lundeen notes it might include how often consumers eat beef (consumers in beef production states tend to eat beef more often); the importance or reduced importance of production issues; competitive proteins (chicken is produced more commonly in some areas of the country); and distribution channels (big discounters are more prevalent in certain regions).

Larger differences do exist, however. Lundeen says he was interested to learn, for instance, that even within what are commonly thought of as “beef production states” there are some significant urban elements. “Every state has a preponderance of urban dwellers that dominate the population in that state,” he says. “While consumers in these urban areas are more knowledgeable on agricultural issues than consumers in, say, Los Angeles or New York City, they are still further removed from agriculture.

“Those are the kinds of things a council board really wants to know,” Lundeen says. “They’re trying to make smart decisions in that state, and this information can help them. They want to set some targets, and maybe close some gaps.”
 
A welcome tool
State beef councils have responded very well to the checkoff-funded information, which they can purchase at-cost through the national database.  “It does help us in directing our program,” according to Linda Bebee, vice president of domestic marketing for the Texas Beef Council. “Obviously, our total program isn’t based on [the CBI], but it is interesting to see.”

Bebee says the TBC will be using the results from 2013-15 CBI research in development of their 2017 programs. They have used results from previous CBI research in developing current and previous TBC marketing programs, comparing Texas numbers to the national ones and doing research to determine local differences within the state.

“It’s always hard to get state-specific information,” Bebee says. “We wonder if Texas consumers are different than those in other parts of the country. Are they different from those on the coasts? Are they different from those in the rest of the Beef Belt? Answers to those kinds of comparisons are good to know.”

In the northern U.S. similar questions have surfaced, which have motivated participation in the program. “We wanted to see how we compared to the rest of the world,” says John Freitag, executive director of the Wisconsin Beef Council. “We also wanted a benchmark from which we could build some programs. The CBI gave our programs some direction, and things to focus on.”

Freitag says the research delivers valuable information as the WBC attempts to maximize its value to beef producers in Wisconsin. “We need to better understand consumers in our state,” he says. “We think using the CBI gives us the best opportunity for making key checkoff-funded decisions. Furthermore, we can use the CBI information to show that we’re being accountable and using the dollars wisely. If we don’t have benchmarks, how are we going to know where the best returns are?”

Patti Brumbach, executive director of the Washington State Beef Commission, agrees, saying her council has been participating in the CBI program at the state level since 2007. She and her board rely heavily on information gleaned from it. “It’s a very important part of our marketing plan,” she says. “We use it both as a benchmark and to evaluate our programs. We use it so that we can understand how best to invest funds and to be accountable for what we set out to accomplish.”
 
Joining forces
Not all states have the consumer population that makes it cost-effective to conduct individual state CBIs. Ann Marie Bosshamer, executive director of the Nebraska Beef Council, says her organization joined forces with councils in Missouri, Kansas and Iowa to acquire data that would help them in their marketing plans. By joining together the “MINK” states could gather information useful in their efforts.

“As a state we looked at it quite a while, but thought it was cost prohibitive,” according to Bosshamer. “But by joining forces with Missouri, Iowa and Kansas, our states can get data we need. And I’ve been very pleased with the results.

”It’s definitely a valuable tool for us,” adds Bosshamer. “It shows us what the consumers know, and what they don’t know. It’s something we need to continue.”

In December Lundeen presented results from the MINK research to the participating states. Prior to that Bosshamer met with staff leaders from the other states to “discuss ways to partner on a variety of programs. We want to look at what we’re doing well, and in what areas we need to work harder,” she says.

States utilize the information they obtain in ways that are meaningful to their own volunteer producer state boards. For instance, the Wisconsin Beef Council used CBI information that suggested consumers in that state appreciate small meat markets to form a promotion partnership with the Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors. “Each state has different needs,” says WBC’s Freitag. “We all have to look for partnerships that make the most sense for programs and producers in our state.”

“Some states are using it to make their boards more knowledgeable, or to set key tracking goals,” according to Lundeen.  “Being able to divide this information for states was a creative solution to let them look at consumers within their own states.”

Bebee says that other research besides the CBI is crucial to planning – research in nutrition communications, for example. That information is conducted nationally through the Beef Checkoff Program and shared at the state level. WBC’s Freitag says they have used this kind of research to work with his state’s heart association and other health groups to promote beef’s value.
 
Bottom line
According to Brumbach, CBI information is the kind of third-party research crucial to an industry that sometimes has a skewed perspective. “When you’re from the industry, you’re not objective,” she says. “We’re just too close to our product and our work. Being involved in the CBI allows us to see the consumer objectively, and plan and act accordingly. We need to remember that what we do starts and ends with the consumer.

“It’s important to remember that understanding the consumer is foundational for us,” she says. “If we don’t understand the consumer, we’re out of business.”