While it may seem the beef industry spends tons of money on research, it's really the only way to survive to stay competitive, says Jeanne Sowa, group director of consumer and marketing services for the American Dietetic Association (ADA).

Sowa has developed and analyzed market research for more than 15 years. Much of her marketing experience has been with the former National Live Stock & Meat Board, as well as Dairy Management, the checkoff arm of the dairy industry, and now the ADA.

"The marketplace is constantly changing," she says. "For example, Coca Cola doesn't use the research it did last year to do its programs for '98 and '99. Every successful company is out in the marketplace trying to understand their consumers, what's changing with them and then trying to keep ahead of it."

BEEF asked Sowa to pour over some of the major consumer research available and provide her perspective on just how well the industry works to stay consumer focused.

First of all, Sowa is quick to give the beef industry high marks for its consumer research efforts. "Everything I see has some relevance to a particular program the industry is doing," she says.

She does believe, however, that producers could look at some of the current studies and think they might be unimportant. "But to a person developing an advertising campaign, brochure or PR program, they need the information that's there. Not having it would just be guessing," she says.

Educated Assumptions Of course, consumer research does not provide all the answers, Sowa says. But, she claims it does provide information that then can help make educated assumptions about what needs to be done.

Sowa lumps research into three main categories:

* Demographic trend research

* Strategic research

* Tactical research

Strategic research is designed to help build your business. And to Sowa, that's the most important research. She also subdivides the strategic category into two parts:

1. Information pertinent to the distribution channel, and

2. Information pertinent to consumers per se.

"In the distribution channel part, it's important that we understand where beef is being purchased," Sowa says. "Since we know it's being purchased in both foodservice and retail, you need a good understanding of the volume in those areas.

"When you look at the foodservice segment, 65 percent is in quick service restaurants (QSR). That tells me when you look at the foodservice marketplace, you're really looking at a dominance of ground beef," Sowa says. "Here, a producer might ask himself: 'What do I have to offer these outlets? And, am I producing what these outlets actually demand?'"

Sowa is particularly impressed by research in the deli foods area. "The deli number is incredible and it's contributing a lot to dollar sales," she says. "That's because the deli provides foods that people want to eat today; providing the time-pressed consumer meals already ready to put on their plate. I think the industry needs to be thinking about producing the products that fit within the time constraints of consumers."

Also, she says the "Beef Is More Profitable" chart tells retailers that beef is indeed more profitable than the other main meats they sell. "I'm sure retailers hear that their consumers want more poultry. But, if they see that more of their profit is coming from beef, then that gives them the impetus to keep featuring and promoting beef."

Grading Confusion Research shows that there still appears to be confusion over the beef grades and that's critical for producers to understand, Sowa says. (See "Confusion Over Beef Grades," page 7.) "Most people really don't know a whole lot about grades, yet the industry spends a lot of time on the whole grading issue," she says. "Granted, it's important for the cattle industry, but is there something else that needs to be done for consumers? Frankly, I don't think consumers want to be educated about the grades. They say, 'Just give me what I want.'"

But, Sowa wonders if there are other mechanisms to explore to indicate levels of quality to consumers? "Maybe there's something a little more friendly?" she says.

ADA's Goal Is Nutrition Education The ADA, Sowa says, is constantly looking at reaching and educating consumers. Their basic message to consumers: "There are no good and bad foods. There are only good and bad diets. All foods can fit into a healthy diet."

That said, ADA's 1997 Nutrition Trends Survey shows that seven in 10 Americans still believe that foods are good or bad. "So, where do you think beef fits?" Sowa asks. "Probably not on the good food list."

Although television news is the largest source of information for consumers, Sowa says their study shows only 24% of people judge it to be "very valuable. " Dietitians and doctors are viewed as the most valued source (52%), followed by specialty health/nutrition magazines (39%), nurses (38%) and women's magazines (36%). (See "Value Of Nutrition Information Sources For Providing Useful Information," page 6.)

With consumer research, no one study or group has all the answers. "No one has really found what it is that's going to turn the consumer on," Sowa says. "That's the big challenge. You just try to understand what makes consumers tick and you hopefully design your products and programs to meet that. So, you constantly have to be on the ball and try to understand what's new."

(Charts and graphs are samples of many studies reviewed.)