Enter Chicken, a lean, healthy meat. Known for its role in calorie-conscious dishes such as Caesar salad.
Enter Beef, a fatty, flavorful meat—everything Chicken is not. Known for its succulence in cuts such as tenderloin and New York Strip.
Enter Pork [no description available].
Since the late 1980s, pork has gone through a number of transformations, shifting back and forth between different roles. One minute it resembles beef, the next a poor imitation of chicken. As a result, consumers don’t know what to make of it.
To a large extent, pork’s character flip-flops because of its molecular structure. Due to its myoglobin levels (the oxygen-carrying protein that gives meat its red color) being lower than beef but higher than chicken, there is some confusion about whether pork is a white meat, like chicken and turkey, or a red meat, like beef. To some, including the United States National Pork Board and those in the culinary world, it is the former, while to others, like the American Institute for Cancer Research and just about everyone in the health and nutrition sciences, it is the latter.
Pork, in other words, is stuck in limbo between chicken and beef, lean/healthy and fatty/flavourful, which has proven tricky for the pork industry in terms of marketing.
One word the National Pork Board likes to use is “versatile.” Not only is pork versatile in the kitchen, but also it’s versatile in marketing. This recent proposal by the USDA that would focus on a new grading system promises to shake up the way we view pork. But are these constant identity changes good or bad for pork’s public image? And what do they say about consumers?
In the late 19th century, pork was a character of substance—it had a strong and well-understood identity. Before the advent of refrigeration, pork was the most-consumed meat in America because it could be easily preserved through processing. As a result, it was most commonly associated with salty products, like ham and bacon, which led to its reputation as being fatty and unhealthy.
“Most consumers think of pork only as chops and as a blue-collar kind of food,” said a New York Times report from the late 1980s. “Unlike veal, [pork] is unsuited for featuring at dinner parties or ordering at a restaurant.”
Yet when refrigeration entered the scene in the mid-20th century, beef replaced pork as the most-consumed meat in America. Pork’s infamy continued in the latter half of the century as consumers became more conscious of the fat content of their food.
However, just before the dawn of the 1990s, the National Pork Board reintroduced pork, with a brand new look, to the public, launching what would become one of the most popular ad campaigns in modern marketing: “Pork. The Other White Meat”
Created by the advertising agency Bozell, Jacobs, Kenyon & Eckhart, the goal of the campaign was straightforward.
“[The objective] was to increase consumer demand for pork and to dispel pork’s reputation as a fatty protein,” says pork.org. “The Other White Meat campaign was developed to position pork as a good tasting, versatile and nutritious meat that is easy to prepare and appropriate for any meal.”
The Other White Meat was a campaign urgently needed by those in the pork industry. At the time, a battle for center stage was taking place, with chicken quickly prevailing as the star of the meat world. By 1996, it had overtaken pork as the second-most-consumed meat in America, and by 2012 it had stolen the spotlight all together by dethroning beef. By aligning pork with lean white meats, thereby riding the coattails of chicken, the National Pork Board attempted to appeal to the consumer trend of health-conscious eating, and to reclaim its ground over its feathered antagonist.
The Other White Meat campaign was a smash hit. In less than five years, sales increased by 20%, and from 1987 to 1994, pork consumption per person went from a little over 45 pounds a year to 49 pounds. More than that, the campaign helped repair pork’s image by convincing a large amount of consumers that it was no longer unhealthy. In fact, pork was so convincing in its role as the other white meat that people were willing to overlook overwhelming evidence to the contrary, which speaks either to the power of marketing or the gullibility of consumers—or, more likely, both.
Beginning in the mid-2000s, the National Pork Board sought to further revamp pork’s image, starting with the new slogan “Don’t be blah.”
The objective of the slogan, according to Progressive Grocer, was to “increase pork sales by positioning pork as an exciting solution to the everyday meal rut that today’s cook falls into.”
“Don’t be blah” was soon followed by “Be inspired.” In the spirit of the original The Other White Meat campaign, the goal of these identity tweaks, aside from increasing sales, was to bring new awareness to pork after the effects of the late-20th century rebranding had worn off.
But these slogans are minor role changes compared to what the USDA has planned next.
The most recent proposed change to pork’s identity, focusing on flavour instead of leanness, would mean a complete role reversal.
“If adopted,” The Western Producer says, “the grading system would once again play up pork as a red meat and drop the white meat comparison.”
After competing with chicken for roughly three decades, with the new grading system, pork’s biggest competitor once again would be beef. Chicken, it seems, proved too tough an adversary. In its attempt to impersonate chicken, pork ended up looking like a B-grade actor compared to the real white meat.
But whether or not these changes will help solidify pork’s character is yet to be seen. What’s also unclear is whether this is yet another marketing campaign by the pork industry, another effort to change pork’s image in order to attract new consumers. And will consumers fall for it this time?
Depending on how you look at it, pork’s many transformations can be seen as both a success and a failure. In terms of brand awareness and sales, they were indeed successful, particularly the original The Other White Meat campaign, which saw pork sales in the United States rise for more than a decade. Sales also increased after the introduction of “Don’t be blah” and “Be inspired.” More importantly, the various marketing campaigns were effective in raising awareness and changing public perception of pork (several times).
But the returns didn’t last long. While sales spiked after each new slogan and ad campaign, in the long run pork consumption has remained relatively stagnant, while chicken has cemented its status as star of the meat world in the US. The same is true in Canada, where pork consumption has declined by more than 30 per cent since 1999, while in the same time chicken consumption has risen 11 per cent.
On top of price increases and economic factors, The Globe and Mail cites “aging diners forgoing red meat for health reasons” as the cause of the decline of pork and beef consumption in Canada, which suggests that The Other White Meat wasn’t entirely effective in convincing people that pork is healthy—or, at the very least, it suggests that the effects of the campaign have worn off.
These rebrandings, in other words, have amounted to nothing more than temporary facelifts, which have only served to obfuscate pork’s public image. Is it a white meat or a red meat? Is it lean and healthy, or fatty and flavourful? Based on the various ad campaigns over the years, it’s all of the above. Pork is playing too many roles at once, and as a result consumers don’t know what to make of it. Rather than establish a concrete, distinct identity for pork, the USDA’s many marketing campaigns since 1987 have tried to align it with chicken and beef (often at the same time). The problem with this is that it will always be the other white meat or the other red meat—that is, it will always be the other meat, second to chicken and beef.