Pitching Chicken
By Richard Mitchell
Chicken remains a hot commodity. But vibrant marketing by sector participants still is essential if the protein is to sustain its popularity. C
Chicken is cooking! A survey released earlier this year by Ewing, NJ-based PKS Research found that Americans consumed chicken an average of five times in the two weeks leading up to the poll, and 90 percent of adults ate chicken at least once in that period, up from 86 percent in 2001.
But with other protein suppliers and trade organizations aggressively marketing competing products, it is imperative for the chicken industry to continually launch new initiatives, analysts say.
"We need to keep promoting chicken to consumers and get it in the top of mind," says Sue Quillin, vice president of Business Excellence for Springdale, AR-based Tyson Foods Inc. "We do a terrific job marketing chicken during the summer grilling season, and we need to extend that into fall when everyone's focus is on kids and going back to school."
The major industry-wide promotion is September's National Chicken Month. Launched in 1989 as a vehicle for lengthening the traditionally strong summer sales period and sponsored by the Washington, DC-based National Chicken Council (NCC) and the Tucker, GA-based U.S. Poultry & Egg Association, the initiative also is intended to emphasize chicken's versatility. This year's tagline, "Chicken: Taste the Possibilities," was integrated into all National Chicken Month marketing elements.
Among the components was the attachment of recipe cards and cents-off coupons to about 17 million packages of fresh meat produced by Claxton Poultry Farms, Fieldale Farms Corp., Foster Farms, Gold Kist Inc., Gold 'n Plump Poultry, Mountaire Farms, Park Farms, Perdue Farms, Pilgrim's Pride Corp., Sanderson Farms Inc., and Tyson Foods Inc.
The coupons provided savings on Green Giant frozen bagged vegetables with sauce or seasonings; Kraft  Shake n'Bake; La Choy sauce, vegetable, or noodle products; Hellmann's mayonnaise; and Kraft 100-percent grated cheese or shredded parmesan cheese. The foods also were featured in the recipes.
Four-page color inserts containing the coupons and recipes were also included in the September issues of Good Housekeeping  and Woman's Day Day magazines, which are sent to about 26 million subscribers.
Making the effort
National Chicken Month point-of-sale material -- including railstrips, static-cling decals, banners, and posters -- also were given to retailers, and literature was distributed to about 1,500 food editors at major daily newspapers and magazines.
"Because we're not an industry with a checkoff program, like beef and pork, it takes a lot of effort [from all chicken-sector participants] to make a program successful," Quillin said at the NCC's "Chicken Marketing Seminar 2005," held in Coeur d'Alene, ID, in July.
While Richard Lobb, NCC director of communications, will not reveal the council's marketing budget, he says it is "modest" compared to the beef and pork organizations. The Centennial, CO-based National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) reports that it will spend $25.5 million for promotional efforts on behalf of the Cattlemen's Beef Board (CBB) in fiscal 2005. The funds will be used for such activities as consumer advertising and retail marketing.
Meanwhile, the Clive, IO-based National Pork Board (NPB), recently launched a $10 million marketing initiative. Lobb says a large portion of the NCC's promotional dollars are earmarked for the bi-annual National Chicken Cooking Contest, which features a $100,000 grand prize and $18,000 in runner-up awards. Also sponsored by the U.S. Egg & Poultry Association, the event was held in May in Charlotte, NC.
In addition to staging the competition, the NCC also pays the travel expenses to the conference for select food editors. The journalists this year also attended a cooking seminar and toured the cooking school at Charlotte's Johnson & Wales University. The next contest is scheduled for 2007 in Birmingham, AL.
The NCC in 2006 will sponsor a larger cooking seminar for editors in Philadelphia. "We have to spend in a strategic manner to get the most bangs for out limited bucks," Lobb notes.
Fiercely competitive market
He adds that many chicken producers are hesitant to pool their resources for generic promotions because the sector has more branded items than other protein segments. As a result, many suppliers are heavily touting their own products.
MBA Poultry, Tecumseh, NE, for instance, which markets the Smart Chicken brand of air-chilled, natural, and organic poultry, focuses on consumer education by providing retailers with a plethora of signs and brochures that describe MBA's products, says Erik Monson, vice president of sales and marketing.
"It is important to offer a constant diversity of materials," he notes. "There must be enough ongoing change and flair to attract the attention of the shopper."
The marketing materials also should be available in various sizes and shapes to mesh with the dimensions of the different supermarket cases, and standout from other meat department signs, Monson says. The literature for optimal viewing should be placed within a range of 2-feet above and below the eye level of consumers, and can be on top of the case, attached to railings, or on the glass.
"You can have the right element, but if it's not in the right place in the case, the message is lost," he adds.
MBA Poultry sales personnel frequently visit stores to insure company materials are properly displayed. Distributing product information to consumers is critical because many shoppers still are unclear on the benefits of natural and organic chicken, Monson says.
"Effective merchandising is an art and is not as simple as saying to merchants, 'Here is my POS, put it up,'" he notes. "The more time suppliers take to watch traffic patterns and speak with retailers about their chicken, the more effective they will be."
Expounding the attributes of specific types of poultry to store personnel is crucial because it enables the employees to then accurately relay the data to consumers.
"Having a market manager explain the value of an item to customers has a much greater impact than point-of-sale signage or radio advertising," Monson adds. "Consumers are constantly striving for validity and they trust the meat manager."
A clear and concise marketing message also is important because clutter within the case is likely to increase-the result of diminishing space being allocated by retailers for fresh chicken, says Dan Emery, vice president of marketing for Pittsburg, TX-based Pilgrim's Pride Corp. More merchants, he notes, are expanding their offerings of ready-to-cook foods, and beef and pork products at the expense of chicken.
As a result, it is crucial to provide product data on the package without totally covering the poultry with labels or graphics, Emery states. "Consumers still are fairly suspicious about the quality of meat, so along with the information there must be visibility of the chicken."
He says ease of preparation and the health benefits of chicken are two of the main qualities that should be stressed when merchandising the product. Pilgrim's Pride displays the American Heart Association mark of approval on items that meet the association's nutritional criteria for saturated fat and cholesterol, and also provides quick-to-prepare recipes on packages.
Tom Sargent, director of meat and seafood for Bellevue, WA-based Haggen Inc., which operates 16 Top Food & Drug and 14 Haggen Food & Pharmacy stores in the Pacific Northwest, says chicken labels also should contain basic preparation instructions.
"Never underestimate how uninformed the consumer is," Sargent said at the NCC's Chicken Marketing Seminar. "I still have customers asking me how to cook a chicken."
Haggen Inc. is targeting the convenience-minded shopper by offering more than a dozen varieties of fresh chicken kabobs, as well as boneless, whole-stuffed chickens.
"There is a need to constantly evolve the product so consumers are given something new," Sargent added.
Larry's Markets, a Kirkland, WA-based chain of six groceries, seeks to differentiate itself from competitors by marketing more than a dozen varieties of chicken in its service case, including stuffed breasts, marinated parts, and kabobs, says Durell Herman, meat and seafood director. Best-selling items include breasts stuffed with apple, almonds, and apricots.
Free-range chickens -- which are allowed outside of buildings when being raised -- also are popular at Larry's Markets, with sales greater than those of conventional birds, Herman notes. "Many customers are concerned with how the animals are reared, and are looking for foods they could feel good about serving," he says.
More shoppers also are being drawn to locations that provide a selection of natural and organic chicken, analysts say. "Health is the rallying cry for today's consumers and is the foundation for differentiation by retailers," notes Jon Hauptman, vice president at Barrington, IL-based Willard Bishop Consulting Ltd.
Yet, it is crucial that shoppers and retailers clearly understand the differences between natural, organic, and conventional chicken for continued segment growth, notes Paul Gingrich, a natural meats consultant and former vice president of meat and seafood for Boulder, CO-based Wild Oats Markets Inc.
"Everyone associated with consumers has to know how to sell the product," he says. "The challenge is getting employees to understand how the varieties of chicken vary. And because customers are very suspicious when it comes to natural foods, it is the job of the retailer to give them a bit more information on how the products are raised." NP
Richard Mitchell is editor of sister publication Meat & Deli Retailer.