A&W has been the whipping boy for many in the agriculture community who see any marketing that might lead someone to question what they do on their farm as an enemy.
It was back in 2013 (already) that A&W created a backlash by moving to beef that was free of added hormones and antibiotics.
We have efficient and defined value chains in beef and that meant there wasn’t enough beef that fit the A&W description in Canada to fill their market – and it has proved to be a significant market for the fast food company, which is considered one of the fastest growing since it made the decision to markedly separate itself from its competition. Was it honest? Not always. Was it feeding into consumer fears? Yes. But was it good business? Also yes.
Was it also the impetus (along with the McDonald’s-driven Roundtable on Sustainable Beef) for increasingly branded and higher value beef produced in Canada? Yes again.
A significant amount of time was spent at the recent Beef Farmers of Ontario annual meeting talking about marketing – and almost all of that marketing talk was about branding. The Ontario Corn Fed Beef program has been a significant success in Ontario, growing placement for Ontario beef in supermarkets here and creating a story for foreign markets, especially in Asia.
The Ontario Corn Fed Beef program predates A&W’s push for a defined beef brand, but the A&W move was the big consumer play.
It’s not surprising that, after almost seven years of marketing beef in a certain way, A&W is changing up its campaign, announcing in early March that it will be moving to all grass-fed beef and all-Canadian beef.
This is smart and gives it a whole new set of potential marketing messages to talk about with its customers.
The company believes it can source enough grass-fed beef in Canada, although it could take some time. It says it is working to develop suppliers across Canada, including in Ontario. It says it will pay a premium for grass-fed beef.
According to a recent report from Nourish Marketing on 2020 food trends, there’s rapidly growing interest in “planet-friendly” often at the expense of personal health concerns – such as whether beef is raised without added hormones and antibiotics. The long list of ingredients in a Beyond Meat, plant-based burger doesn’t follow the trend to fewer and simpler ingredients. But if people are convinced it will have less impact on the environment, it looks like some consumers will still choose it.
A&W gets this, and is heading along for the ride. There’s some significant momentum behind the idea that beef is helpful to the environment when it is produced on grass, using feed that people won’t eat and maintaining ecosystems for birds and wildlife.
There’s a good argument to be made that finishing on grass, with a much longer timeline than corn-fed finishing, can result in greater methane production per pound of meat, and corn is, of course, a grass. But the appeal of grass-based finishing is real. It fits the warm and fuzzy view of cattle on pasture. The view that beef and pasture and grass are sustainable is one that the sector has been pushing hard, including with a well-done Guardians of the Grasslands film. This move by A&W looks like some people have heard the message, which is a victory for the livestock sector.
The backlash from corn-fed boosters will be difficult to justify when the national association is promoting the sustainability of cattle on grass.
Over the past 10 years the beef sector has significantly evolved, driven by the market. Most major beef processing plants across the country will soon be able to process cattle under the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef standards, including Cargill’s Guelph plant.
Even though farmers groused about it, market forces have moved the sector, and there are new opportunities and premiums for farmers to get (although there will be costs to moving to certain production systems that might eat up that premium).
The market has also said there’s demand for more plant-based proteins, although I expect the over-the-top marketing supporting it will eventually end as the size of the plant-based market will plateau.
I’ve been barbecuing plant-based burgers for relatives for decades. This is nothing new, but the strength of the movement is. The market is speaking and when it does it means opportunity. But none of it means that meat isn’t still popular and in growing demand around the world.