No matter how professionally it's done, if advertising doesn't move product, it's worthless. As beef and beef products compete for position in consumers' minds, retail communication is becoming more focused and based on extensive research.

"As the industry changes, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) has responded to the changes in the marketplace by bringing retail and foodservice marketing activities together," says Kevin Yost, executive director of channel marketing.

"Seventy-one percent of beef is sold via retail outlets and 29 percent through foodservice. We're integrating these marketing channels because these are the people who have direct contact with our consumers.

"Channel marketing takes research and consumer marketing messages into the channels where people interact with our customers every day," Yost adds.

History Channel marketing is in force now and with good reason. NCBA is directing more consumer promotion dollars into channel marketing as well as market research to focus and target messages.

Mary Adolf, NCBA vice president for U.S. consumer marketing, says a historical perspective shows where beef's strengths are.

"If we look at when the $1/head checkoff started in 1986, a big part of the marketing spending went to direct consumer advertising, such as 'Beef. Real Food for Real People.' " she says. "As we've moved forward with our marketing programs, we've recognized inflation's impact on checkoff dollars. It's required us to think more creatively about how to use these dollars effectively. We have to craft a plan that directs us to audiences that can yield the biggest bang for the buck.

"There's been producer involvement with our program development and they've asked us to openly evaluate the impact of checkoff dollars and what we're accomplishing in the marketplace. This in turn has challenged us to find how our product moves through the system and how we can best intervene with checkoff dollars," Adolf says.

Win Some/Lose Some The process turned up winners and losers, she says.

"Programs that consistently show results relative to increasing our market share are NCBA's foodservice marketing programs," Adolf says. "We've seen continual increases from the early 1990s to today. This includes increased numbers of servings in restaurants.

At the same time, poultry had its success as well, she says. While the beef industry is holding its own, it's evident the industry is being outspent and outmaneuvered by poultry. If the beef industry hadn't been working aggressively all along, the situation would be even tougher.

"We've had struggles, too," Adolf adds. "We've had award-winning advertising, but it has to be supported by ample budgets to effectively reach consumers. The industry hasn't supported it at that level, however. We saw extremely positive effects from the 'Beef. It's What's for Dinner' campaign gaining 72 percent awareness and a 13 percent increase in consumer intent to buy our product. But did it move the needle? Did we see increased sales relative to poultry at the retail level? No."

Adolf says a big challenge beef faces is that almost everyone in the U.S. eats beef in one form or another. Because this is such a gigantic audience, it's very expensive to reach it with advertising messages as often as needed.

"We need to drill into this large audience and find where our best and most valuable consumers are and then find out how we get to those consumers with an impactful message with limited dollars," Adolf says.

The Present It's at this stage where NCBA faces its current challenges. It's gearing up with a new arsenal.

"We just completed a large consumer market research project we call 'Single Source,' " Adolf says. "This involves a purchase study panel and a diary purchase study that tracks consumer purchases at home and away from home. We've never been able to match up individuals before to measure how these eating patterns differ. On top of this, we've overlaid a comprehensive attitude survey seeking input on attitudes related to preparation, food safety and price issues."

Research shows that when consumers go to the grocery store, they don't go to buy beef. They go to buy specific products, such as ground beef, 90% lean, 80% lean and so on. Plus, consumers have varying reasons about when and why they purchase these products.

No single reason stands out about why certain products are purchased, but there are many issues to why they don't buy. Often it's a lack of knowledge about how to prepare the product, the amount of time needed to prepare it, or they're confused about the vast array of cuts. The strongest reason for buying? The family likes it.

"From a marketing perspective, that tells us they actually enjoy consuming these products, but they're not buying them for a variety of reasons," Adolf says.

She adds that nothing in the research shows a limit to the use of ground beef. In fact, consumers love its versatility and convenience. And although a good portion of beef moves as ground, it's the lowest-value product. The goal is to develop products for which consumers will pay more.

"This research has helped us define our strategy and refine who it is we should be targeting," Adolf says. "We're targeting the convenience-orientedfood preparer who is willing to frequently purchase and repurchase convenient pr oducts. We've also isolated age brackets, income, working styles and other characteristics.

"We've peeled back the layers on consumers," she says. "Consumers say one thing, but research shows it doesn't match up with their behavior. We've now linked their behavior with their attitudes. By doing so, we can get at the heart of what will make people buy specific products."

It Takes Time No success happens overnight. The beef industry, Adolf says, has had to create "repurchase" of its products. "We're trying to build an entire new product category," she says. "This takes time directed at the consumer and time and energy directed into the channels, including foodservice, retailers and manufacturers."

NCBA's channel marketing is taking this consumer behavior research to retailers under the umbrella of "category management." This uses consumer behavior data and point-of-sale data to make decisions about promotion elasticity, price elasticity, product mix and meatcase layout.

"It really affects how the retailer merchandises our product," Yost says. "We're trying to make it easier to shop for beef. Consumers are confused by the varying anatomically-based names we have for beef products.

"What we're doing with our overall consumer marketing is to draw consumers to the meatcase believing beef is convenient and versatile," he adds. "Channel marketing's goal is to deliver on that by working with retailers to lay out meat by cooking methods or food combinations.

"We're sending messages to consumers with a call to action to buy our products. They must have a good shopping, buying, preparation and eating experience for it all to come together," he says.

NCBA is working with the top 25 retail chains in the country. These chains account for 60% of all retail beef volume.

"Retailers are our best partners to help us move forward," Yost says. "They interact with our consumers every day. They see them react to beef, chicken, pork and seafood. We're calling on retailers several times a year to help them understand why beef is important to their business. In return, they're helping us better understand consumers."

Yost says retailers have responded well. In the last two years, NCBA has built a co-marketing focus where it shares its tools and objectives to match with retailers' marketing objectives. To some degree, 90% of the 25 grocery chains are using NCBA materials.

"We approach our retail partners in an integrated fashion," Yost says. "Based on our research, consumer confusion creates to loss of purchases. For example, 33 percent of consumers couldn't find an item they wanted when they approached the meat case. Of those, 12 percent walked away taking with them dollars that could've gone into the beef supply chain."

NCBA, he says, is helping solve this by creating an environment for the success of "easy" beef: easy to shop, select and prepare. This includes new products; for example, a 7-bone chuck roast vs. a pre-cooked pot roast.

"Our job is to help retailers simplify the meat case, create a convenient section and build sales in major chains," Yost says.

The beef industry is no different than any other company marketing products through retailers, Yost maintains. "We have to prove ourselves every day. If we can create more product sales for the retailer and the producer, we will have done our job."