It’s said that every dollar that winds up in your back pocket begins with a consumer making the choice to buy beef. Given that fundamental truth, Mary Lou Quinlan suggests it might be a good idea to listen to what consumers have to say about the beef you produce.

Perhaps the best place to start, Quinlan suggests, is to look at things from her perspective. “For you, it’s a steer; for her, it’s a steak,” says Quinlan, founder and CEO of Just Ask a Woman, a women’s marketing consultancy based in New York City. “For you, it’s better yield and price and use of resources; for her, it’s options and personal choices.”

Quinlan bases those observations on research she conducted for Intervet-Schering Plough Animal Health on how consumers view beef. For this research, “consumer” is defined as middle-class moms trying to balance a family budget, juggle family life and feed their families in a way they can feel good about. The research was done in both group discussions and individual interviews in Hartford, CT, and suburban Chicago.

She’s the boss, Quinlan says, because she’s a $5-trillion consumer who buys 93% of the food sold in the U.S. “This is someone who is influencing and driving and communicating and tweeting her feelings,” she says.

While beef is still moms’ protein of choice, there’s a huge level of confusion among women about what’s available to them, Quinlan says. That’s because they’re bombarded with so many different ideas from the general media, activists, and advocates for various positions. Then there are their friends, the blogs they read and the shopping experience itself, with its many labels and point of sale ads.

“So they’re looking for clear, simple, accessible information to help clear up the confusion they feel has come to the category,” Quinlan says.

Freedom of choice

Many of the moms they talked with had what Quinlan called “a fiery independence of thought,” almost a backlash to being told what not to eat.

“There’s an underlying feeling, and maybe it’s coming out of this confusion, that ‘I really don’t want somebody hijacking my dinner table,’” Quinlan relates. “Women have a lot of pride in how they care for their families and make selections for them, and they want to feel they’re doing the right thing. They don’t want to feel they’re making compromises or guilt about their choices. They seek solutions that give them that comfort and trust, that say ‘whatever choice I make, I’m the one who calls the shots and I want to feel good about it.’ ”

However, it’s not a case of traditional beef vs. organic or natural, because women want it all. Rather, freedom of choice is the hero, Quinlan says.

“There needs to be room on everybody’s table for beef; women who are savvy shoppers and are price comparing want to know they can have all the options they want. It’s not either-or; it’s that they want to know that all beef has a place at their table. There’s a mood of, ‘I’m trying to do the best I can. Times are tight, but don’t make me feel I’m compromising when I make decisions I believe are right,’” she says.

Beef brings a lot to the dinner table in that regard. “There’s still a good degree of confidence in the safety of beef today. There’s a lot of confidence in USDA and FDA that they’re doing frequent federal inspections and their goal is a safe product for Americans,” Quinlan says.

Confidence in beef producers

That confidence extends to beef producers as well. Quinlan says that, at a certain level, moms know that all business has become big business. Yet, they harken back to the family farm and have a lot of confidence in cattle family farmers.

“There’s an understanding that the people in this business are in it for generations, that their goal is to do the right thing by their own families. So there’s a lot of heart and trust that they felt for the whole industry,” Quinlan says.

That family-to-family message resonates with consumers, she says. While the beef industry has long recognized that fact, individual cattlemen now have avenues to reach consumers directly through their use of social media.

However, Quinlan says, what you say and how you say it matters. As they discussed how women feel about including beef in their family meals, Quinlan observed, “It was as if conventional beef was the child at the table who didn’t have a name.” And that’s a problem, what with all the choices a mom has when she walks up to the meat case.

During their discussions, Quinlan and her research team threw out the word “traditional” for consideration. “The idea of ‘traditional’ rang true with them and they right away started referring to it that way.” That’s because “traditional” puts non-branded beef on an emotional high ground, a place of equal emotion. And that’s important. “Women have feelings about the products they buy and they take that into context of their entire life,” she says.

Women make decisions based on a number of factors, not the least of which are the memories and powerful connections they have. “When it comes to beef, they’re laden with emotional connections and powerful memories,” Quinlan says.

It could be the chili on a cold day that their mom made, family meals when they were a child with a pot roast as the main course, their first meal in a white-tablecloth restaurant or the connections and relationships that come with having the family around while her husband is grilling hamburgers on the back porch. “Beef is part of our family tradition and our life and we like it that way,” Quinlan says.

In Quinlan’s mind there’s an opportunity with the word “traditional” for both cattlemen and retailers to help moms find your product – almost like a brand name for unbranded beef. “Don’t just make it the anonymous option that doesn’t get much attention,” she says.

For starters, Quinlan suggests you begin to use “traditional” when you talk about the beef you produce.

For example, she offers this thought for your 30-second elevator speech when someone asks what you do for a living: “I grow traditional beef – grown with quality and care, grown by my family, perfected from farm to market to table. I grow beef you can count on.”

Advancing that idea is important, Quinlan says, because your consumer is influencing the retailer because the retailer wants to serve what she’s buying and respond to her needs. “So that key consumer is telling you to label it in a way that I can understand it, educate at the shelf in a way that I can understand it, and what can you do in the store to make it easier for me to buy and want your product. That’s what it’s all about.”