Brand-Ed

The recently revived controversy over a stomach-turning term used to describe a certain beef product got me thinking about branding, consumer perceptions, and the power of celebrity and social media. A strong brand is what marketers hope for: an image or association in the minds of consumers that will keep them coming back for more. But what happens when that brand is a mar rather than a star?

I’ll spare you the all the details which I am sure by now you’ve heard (and in case you just ate) but the controversy over— okay, I’ll say it this once— “pink slime” arose after celeb-chef Jamie Oliver brought consumer attention to a filler used in ground beef— what the industry calls “Lean Finely Textured Beef Trimmings,” but which Oliver called by its now-infamous name (originally termed by a USDA microbiologist). After making headlines throughout all outlets of media and social networking sites, the public uproar reached a frenzy that resulted in the product being pulled from shelves and a shutdown of 3 factories.

Now as you know from my last post, I am not a big beef purchaser, and here may yet be another reason for me not to purchase a beef product, but what struck me most about this latest headline is how quickly and efficiently this term was able to bring down a product once it reached the gateways of social media. If the controversy had been brought up against, say “Lean Finely Textured Beef Trimmings” or the generic “fatty beef offcuts” I doubt such a horrified outcry would have been heard. After all defenders of the beef industry cite that it is in fact all beef and has been deemed to be safe (albeit by the USDA—not by all countries).

Don’t get me wrong— I am thrilled to hear consumers start to demand transparency of process, accountability, and higher quality food products. However, the backlash is an exemplar of the power public perception has in branding— how a name can both positively and negatively affect a product (and in this case the latter). This is not a new phenomenon of course, as spikes and declines in consumption of certain products generally follows food stories and studies. What is notable to me is the the swift take down of a product that was not tied to safety concerns or fraudulent claims. Interestingly, the BBC points out this may be one of the first examples of consumers demanding a recall of a product not because of a safety concern but because it just sounded gross. A tweet with strong imagery can be enough to rally the masses.

Once out in the ether, it’s hard to “take back” an image seared into the minds of readers. We “consumers,” from foodies to connoisseurs, have a great memory for products we love—but equally memorable are those we’ve turned away.