Analysis: Ranching’s Image Gets a Reboot
For the beef industry, the best defense may be a good offense. The industry comes out shooting with its “Rethink the ranch” campaign. A veteran of the small-farm movement and a communications professional discuss the new National Cattlemen’s Beef Association marketing campaign, funded by the federal checkoff program.
Editor’s Note: This Q&A is one of two stories about the Rethink the Ranch campaign. Click here for a story about the campaign itself.
You know beef is for dinner. Now the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association would like you to hear that raising beef is high-tech, hip, and environmentally friendly.
The beef association has launched a new promotional campaign that builds off its very successful “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner” promotion. The message of the new campaign, “Rethink the ranch,” seems aimed at a younger crowd that cares about the environment and is comfortable with technology.
We asked communications specialist Dwight Langhum to help us understand the new beef marketing campaign. Langhum, founder of Langhum Mitchell Communications, has three decades’ experience in government, nonprofit, and business communications. (Langhum is also a member of the board of directors of the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder.)
On the other side of the conversation is Bryce Oates, a former livestock farmer from Missouri who covers federal rural policy for the Daily Yonder. Oates shares his knowledge of the history of the beef checkoff program and its current conflicts. In the past, Oates has worked with groups that criticized the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and oppose some of its policy positions.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Bryce Oates: I wanted to get your perspective on the beef checkoff’s website and advertising campaign, “Rethink the Ranch.” I’ve been seeing these ads recently in my internet feeds, my social media account and my music streaming services. I took a look and had questions. My contention is that nothing much has changed in the beef industry or with most beef production. But that the beef industry is trying to re-brand itself as an environmentally friendly, low emission product. That’s both true and not true. But it seems to me that this is just a marketing campaign, more or less.
Dwight Langhum: Absolutely. I was a bit aware of this, but I hadn’t really looked into it until you asked. I was surprised about some of things I found. This is 30-year old campaign, and it has 88% penetration in terms of public understanding. If you say, “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner,” people already know what you are talking about. The messaging has been extremely successful.
Now, they have rebooted it with some of the core themes that come through in the videos. Those elements are sustainability, healthiness, tech savvy, no cruelty to animals, eco-friendly. That package of things. So the social campaign is clearly tailoring itself toward a younger consumer. Now, I haven’t done a deep dive or analysis into this, to be fair.
Oates: Yes. So I’m a 41-year-old father who does a lot of reading and writing about agriculture. I also listen to traditional country and Americana music on social music platforms, so I’m probably in their demographic sweet spot.
Langhum: Right. Now that’s something that they understand. People in their 30s and 40s, even their 20s, that’s their audience. They have done their market research. The 50- or 60-year-olds, they already have their established buying patterns. This campaign is designed to address the industry’s worries about market share in the younger demographic. This younger group is usually concerned about sustainability and those other issues. Now this appears to be a very well-funded campaign, as you probably know.
Oates: Yes. There’s a long-term conversation about the checkoff, and there are many critics. I’ve already talked to a farm group with a critique, and there have been numerous lawsuits and controversies over the years about how checkoff dollars are being spent.
Langhum: Interesting. How did they feel about it?
Oates: These people are critics, as I said, but interesting enough, they actually thought the checkoff campaign was quite well put together. That said they thought that the campaign was clouding the bigger issues in the industry, as they see it. Some of those are structural. Corporate meatpackers are in control. Now, the industry doesn’t own the cows until the ends of their lives, for the most part. But the industry’s hope, more or less, is to pay as low a price as possible for the beef they purchase, either as finished animals or as cattle they purchase to feed themselves. These critics are farmers who don’t like that structure, or the prices they are paid for the beef they raise.
This group’s biggest concern is lack of transparency about how checkoff dollars are spent. There is no transparency about how the campaign was created, how effective the campaign is, who the contractors were to create the materials. The primary subcontractor of the checkoff is the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA). So these critics are saying, “OK, someone might watch the videos and have a positive impression. But do we know that’s the case, how much did it cost?”
Now, these same family farm groups have been suing the checkoff program for many years now to get ahold of this information.
Langhum: That type of information is likely going to be very hard to come by. That’s common with trade associations. They don’t want to disclose that type of information. But the fact remains that this is a highly effective, very sophisticated, well-funded campaign. I didn’t know it was 30 years old. When there’s something like this, taking into mind that the industry association understands through market research and testing, that they keep re-investing and revitalizing the campaign, it’s a strong indication of how deeply they have penetrated the consumer. The farmers may be upset, may want to know more, but if I were those guys, I’d say that this is money well spent.
Oates: OK. That’s interesting. Another layer to this is the policies that NCBA supports are often very pro-corporate. Now, that’s a very small set of people that run the industry. But, there’s around a million cattle producers in the country, mostly smaller in scale, or part-time, though some are larger and full-time, who are paying into this so-called marketing program [NCBA reports that there are 913,246 cattle producers] . The problems are less about this campaign than they are with the policy side. It gets back to policy, to the NCBA as a policy shop. Now sometimes there isn’t a lot of disagreement. NCBA supports farmer and rancher disaster assistance, for instance, the easy stuff. But when it comes to structural issues like fair markets, antitrust, breaking up corporate control over the marketplace, NCBA is one of the biggest lobby groups opposing that approach.
For instance, Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren rolled out her corporate concentration platform in agriculture. I’m sure that they will oppose her and oppose that. The NCBA is in lock-step with mainline Republican orthodoxy most of the time.
Langhum: So this is about projection. The ad campaign, then is about projecting a small-farm myth, and then the industry takes advantage of those farmers on the back side.
Oates: That’s similar to what is indicative of other experts that support the industry. The industry, the checkoff as well, sometimes hire and pay for scientists who paint a picture that beef is actually carbon-emission friendly. I don’t disagree with some of this. Now, I have a lot experience with carbon accounting. I used to run a company that did just that. So I don’t really dispute some of what these scientists say. But I would say that they tend to pick and choose their numbers and datasets very carefully. Their case is, and I’m a critic, too, is “that we’re so hi-tech and modern these days that we produce more beef per animal while using less land.” So that is true in lots of ways. It’s a fact that the industry is producing more beef per animal in poundage. They have done that through genetic improvements and feeding regimens, as they say. I don’t dispute that. But they are simply telling a story about maximizing pounds produced per animal. I will admit you can produce more pounds of beef per animal by feeding them corn instead of eating a grass only diet. But what kind of weight is it? What about the negative side of intensive corn production, of cattle manure from feedlots. If you’re going to measure greenhouse gas emissions, you have to look at the whole cycle. If you’re going to make a claim about sustainability, you should be looking at water and air pollution, as well as the economic viability of the producers and workers throughout the chain.
Langhum: One of the things in the news recently has been the labeling of “meat,” right? Again, I’m no expert in agriculture, but the industry has been fighting back against these new non-animal proteins. Now, I’m not defending this, but in terms of fighting back, in terms of defending beef’s market share, that’s what this campaign is designed to accomplish. I’m not sure where the smaller farmer would end up on that.
Oates: So I’ve worked on these issues for the past 20 years, on the side of the family farmers and critics. And I’d have to say, frankly, that the opinions as they are expressed are right around half and half about these issues. There’s a lot of nuance, and NCBA does a lot of very unpopular things, again the corporate consolidation and meatpacker control issues. But the opinion in the industry, about checkoffs is usually somewhere in the 40/60 to 60/40 range. So that’s where the fight happens. There have been votes about whether to cancel mandatory commodity checkoffs. It’s always close, with a slight leaning toward canceling the checkoffs when producers vote.
Langhum: I would say that, on the marketing side, on the defending the industry side, one of the examples to keep in mind would be the tobacco industry. Big tobacco, they did a lot of things to maintain their profits and market share. They lied, they cheated. I have researched this and worked on campaigns for tobacco-free kids. James Garner, for instance, was the original spokesman for the campaign. They got rid of him when he had a triple bypass. The Marlboro Man, the cowboy, he had lung cancer. So these symbols, the people out in front, they get killed by the product they’re promoting. The beef industry here, they recognize some of those same land mines. Based on what you’re saying about the smaller farmers and them losing out to the industry overall.
Oates: Interesting. The other part of the story here, and this is coming from a critical perspective, is that the checkoff opponents, the opponents of corporate control of the beef industry, they have very little funding to make their case. They are very underfunded. Now NCBA, I would argue, punches above its weight in public perception and appears to be more popular than it actually is because of the money flowing through it with the checkoff. There are other reasons, political alignment with the Republicans mostly, but also a lot of Democrats, for instance.
But my point is that there is no comparable set of documents, data, market research and science that checkoff opponents can point to break through the industry’s control of public perception. In other words, the farmers who want family-farm-raised beef, breaking up industry monopolies, more farmers not fewer, farmers earning a fair price for the things they grow, they don’t have agriculture economists on staff. They don’t have marketing teams.
Langhum: Here’s what I don’t understand, and I think it’s a problem. There are some natural allies in this fight. And that would be the environmentalists.
Oates: You nailed that one. I get that. I kind of have one foot in each camp, the family farm movement and the environmental movement. So you’re right, but also the environmentalists are partly to blame for this situation.
Langhum: That’s the difficulty. It’s hard to break through, clearly. But my opinion is that these smaller farmers, they need resources and allies if they’re going to push back against the industry. They just don’t have enough resources.
Oates: Yes. Nor the tolerance for dealing with the environmentalists, the labor unions, the other green groups.
Langhum: I think this could change with the young people. Racism, homosexual acceptance, environmental issues. That’s how the Republican coalition is holding for now. But as these voting age kids come up, that is going to change. I would guess, though, in farming that this isn’t the case. That the farming demographic skews much older than the general population.
Back to beef. For the beef industry to be spending the money in this way, they clearly feel these trends. They clearly feel the threat. The level they’re spending, the approach they’re taking, they definitely feel under threat.
Or, they could be learning from the tobacco case study and saying “let’s kill it before it grows.” Now I don’t think that will be successful because the feedlot issue is going to be hard to justify on the environmental side. On the meat labeling side (with respect to plant-based “meats”), that industry is already established and it is growing.
Oates: Also, I would point out that the meat industry, the beefpacking corporations, many of them are investing in the alternative proteins. The corporate meatpackers are involved with these companies. They are part of the fake meat industry, the clean meat industry, whatever you choose to call it. It’s important to me that some of the key corporations involved with controlling the beef market are also investing in these alternatives.
Langhum: That’s not unusual. Take the energy sector. Big fossil fuel companies are buying up the smaller clean energy companies. You push fossil fuels until you can present yourself as a clean energy company, then you run a marketing campaign about being a clean, renewable energy company.
But the thing to watch is consumption. The Trump administration might be vulnerable here. My guess is that domestic consumption per capita is declining a bit, but that international consumption is up. I brought up Trump because of the tariffs. My guess is that the Chinese have a big appetite for American beef.
Oates: You’re exactly right. The beef market, it’s strange in some ways. We have moved in the U.S. from a net importer and are now a net exporter of beef. We tend to bring in cheap cuts, cheaper cattle, beef for the hamburger market. We tend to export the expensive, high price items like steaks. And I think your instinct is right. Chinese tariffs certainly have helped with beef exports. It’s hurt soybeans much more, but it still matters.
And you’re right, per capita beef consumption in the U.S. has gone down in the past 50-60 years. At the same time, the chicken industry has exploded and that has taken up much of beef’s market share. So I think you’re probably right, at least on a per capita basis, beef consumption could go down in a small way. People are changing how they eat. And the population is shifting, more immigrants eating lamb, goats, etc. Plus, poultry is just so cheap.
Langhum: But look, Congressional support for the beef industry is a huge component of this.
Oates: For sure. And in both parties. It’s bipartisan.
Langhum: It would be stupid to oppose them if you come from those states. That’s a problem we haven’t discussed so far. There’s a whole lobbying component tied into this.
But what’s so odd about it, from my perspective, is that the ones going out of business, the smaller farmers, have less environmental impact. Now, there’s some things to learn from the tobacco case study here, too. I was just down in North Carolina a couple of weeks ago. I talked to some small farmers still doing tobacco farming. They are managing to survive. I don’t know what it was like as compared to 1975, but their survival says a lot. One guy I spoke with, his family has been able to keep that land for almost 200 years now.
Oates: Yes. And I’ve worked with farmers in North Carolina, know about some farmers in Kentucky, that have been able to transition out of tobacco and got into diversified direct-market type farming of livestock, vegetables, other high value crops, greenhouses, by using some of that tobacco settlement money.
Langhum: Here’s the thing. As a professional, when I hear 88% penetration, by any metric that is highly successful, highly successful. But they are spending the money clearly because they feel threatened.
Oates: Now tell me about this. This campaign is about tech and drones and computers. I’m pretty low-tech. But is there a broader “tech as green” thing? That’s not how I think of it.
Langhum: My thinking is that they are trying to get rid of the image of the cowboy working cattle, the Western image of sweat and cattle-roping.
Oates: Yes. So my impression in the videos is that they are still using horses, riding horses almost in a recreational way, not so much showing working cattle in chutes and such.
Langhum: Yes. Young people, when they’re thinking of the West, they’re not thinking of cattle roping and cattle ranching. They’re thinking of smart industries, of tech, of the industries of the future. Smart farming, smart cattle. That’s tech. I thought they did a very good job incorporating imagery around all of those messages. They are redefining the industry.
The beef industry knows the trends, and even if they don’t stop the reduction in consumption, they’re trying to hold the line. That, to me, would be the objective. That and pushing international market share in a huge way. That’s also what big tobacco did. Tobacco said, OK, the USA is shrinking. Let’s just invest big in the rest of world.
Oates: OK. So that’s similar as well. One the one hand there’s the Trump tariffs. On the other, you’ve got USDA pushing exports in a big way. USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue has shifted many, many resources in the agency toward export expansion and enhancement.
Langhum: Also, beef is considered a status symbol as having made it. As the rest of the world, some developing countries, too, as they’re able to afford beef they would like to buy it. USA is unique in beef in that they’re really the biggest player. Argentina and Brazil as well, but the USA is the biggest player. The USA is the 800-pound gorilla.
Oates: Well, speaking of that, and you might not know this, but the biggest beef company, the company that controls the biggest share of the U.S. market is a Brazilian company, JBS.
Langhum: That’s surprising. Look, if you wanted to point out a liability, there you go. It’s a defensive liability. And everybody gets that.
Oates: So the company, JBS, they have incredible corruption problems. Now we’ve got the biggest hog corporation that controls much of the pork market owned by a Chinese firm, that’s Smithfield. And the beef market is owned, to a large degree, by the Brazilian firm, JBS. And Smithfield has vastly, vastly expanded its hog production using the U.S. CAFO [concentrated animal feeding operation] model. And that’s what makes the soybean tariff export thing such an issue, frankly. Chinese CAFO hogs have to eat something. And that something was U.S. soybeans and corn, to a large degree.
Langhum: The ripple effect, it’s not well understood and well publicized. So people just hear soybeans. They don’t think about how Chinese companies own farms here, how they’re dependent on U.S. crops. These interconnections, they’re complicated and misunderstood.
Oates: Yes. Once you have international integration, how do you turn it off?
Langhum: Highlighting these issues is important. I think talking about how these smaller farms need partners and need resources to fight back. That’s the age-old problem. The little guy can win some points here. This is a big conglomerate, corporate media campaign. And it is very successful in achieving its goal of minimizing incremental losses. The industry is being forced to change. They’re spending the dollars to stave it off. But none of what’s happening is helping the smaller farmers’ plight. But look, that doesn’t mean that the beef industry marketing campaign isn’t successful, that their lobbying campaign isn’t successful. This all costs money. Very few efforts, like this one with the beef industry, are this successful and sophisticated.