How would you characterize contemporary culture? In a word, I would say indulgence. Whether actual or aspirational, it’s the primary motivation that animates our modern lifestyles.
I know they say that print publishing is dead, but next time you’re browsing the magazine rack pick up a copy of Vanity Fair, Esquire or GQ — or if you like, Vogue, Glamour or Elle — and thumb through the ads. That won’t be too taxing, since the first 30 or 40 pages of each issue are nothing but advertisements for designer clothing, jewelry, fragrance, watches, handbags, shoes, and an occasional interloper hawking some high-end gadget, like a ultrasonic facial cleanser (“It cleans 11 times better than your hands!”).
Some of the brands that soak up the full-color spreads are familiar, thanks to the celebrity designers who’ve personally branded their wares: Ralph Lauren, Louis Vuitton. Giorgio Armani. Some just need single name: Chanel. Dior. Versace. Gucci.
Then there are other brands being advertised that, to be frank, I couldn’t identify without a scorecard: David Yurman. Patek Phillippe. Ermenegildo Zegna. Even from their ads, sometimes it’s tough to tell what they’re hawking, although one thing is clear: Whatever it is, it’s going to set you back financially. Big time.
The ads are all the same: Super glamourous models who are impossibly stylish, elegant and breathtakingly handsome in ways you or me will never approximate. And they’re all staring at the camera with the patented “Look at how stunning I am” pose, accented by whatever three- or four-figure accoutrement that’s sharing the frame.
In fact, most of the products that puff up the page count in these “lifestyle” magazines are beyond my budget, and that of plenty of other middle-class families, as well.
That’s not the point, though. The positioning (and the price tag) of these high-end brands is one of indulgence. Even if you can’t afford it, you can aspire to own it. You’re worth it. You deserve it. And even people on a modest income will shell out $500 for a designer purse, or $300 for a blouse or a thousand bucks for a watch.
Such extravagance at least gives you a toehold in the lifestyle of the beautiful people.
Indulgence is why we drool over the shallow antics of celebrities, the A list actors, the rock stars and the famous-because-they’re-wealthy glitterati who indulge in every and anything excessive.
Why? Because they can.
And you can’t.
What’s the industry’s positioning?
So what does any of this have to do with animal agriculture, you ask? Just this: Every rancher, feeder, grower and farmer-producer out there is ultimately in the business of marketing food products, and as a category, food is front and center in the “worth-it-because-you-deserve-it” indulgence pageant that occupies virtually every leading ad agency. In fact, high-end foods are one of the few luxuries that can legitimately be mass-marketed.
Here’s the question: Should meat, poultry and dairy processors get onboard? Is the destiny of the animal protein category tied to the same marketing mentality that drives retailing across virtually every other consumer sector?
To me, it’s a bit of a dilemma. On one hand, there is clearly an indulgence factor in dining at a white tablecloth restaurant — excuse me, I meant to say a ristorante, of maybe a brasserie — and ordering the prime rib or a fancy steak.
Especially when you get the check.
But the bulk of the industry’s tonnage, to drop down to the low-end of the marketing mix, consists of ground beef, sausage, bacon, hot dogs and chicken strips. That’s a consequence of the reality that so-called middle meats, the preferred whole-muscle cuts, represent only a fraction of a dressed carcass, whatever the species.
You won’t find ads for a tasty cheeseburger in the lifestyle pubs, although you would be presented with a pitch for a four-figure grill on which to cook them.
In the end, I have to hope that the meat and dairy industries resist the temptation to go all-in on an indulgent positioning. The product line will always be highly segmented, so there’s room for both luxury and thriftiness. And everything in between.
I just don’t want to be leafing through a glossy magazine and see some vacant-eyed supermodel cozying up to a slab of beef.
Just stick to the beefcake.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator