HERITAGE ACRES FINDS SUCCESS IN LOCAL APPROACH
Barb Baylor Anderson, Contributing Editor
But that's just part of the message Heritage Acres organizers want consumers to receive when they purchase their natural pork with the tagline, "food raised with care on family farms." Market research has provided the guidance the Ozark Mountain Pork Cooperative in Missouri needs to build their Heritage Acres brand from the barn up.
"Broad consumer research was conducted in Missouri a few years ago to test the local brand idea. The research found that if given the choice, consumers want local products from a family farm," says Kyle Vickers, Heritage Acres treasurer and pork producer from Eldorado Springs.
Mary Hendrickson, coordinator for the University of Missouri Food Circles Networking Project, helped coordinate that early research. With funding from the Missouri Department of Agriculture's Business Development program, she tested the idea of marketing locally branded meats.
The research was based on a Family Farm Foods of Missouri concept - a concept that was designed to build relationships between farmers, workers and consumers in a new food system that was safe, secure, sustainable and equitable. Farmers would market a premium product based on those relationships and commitment. In addition, Family Farm Foods would have to be "high-quality, wholesome food with no use of antibiotics in production of animals, no hormones, no biotech feed, no irradiation and the ability to trace back food products to farmers to facilitate relationships with consumers," reads the brochure.
To test the concept with beef as the product, six focus groups were conducted between November 2000 and January 2002 in three Missouri cities. Hendrickson says the groups revealed that consumers - amid food safety, health and quality concerns - are attracted to beef produced on family farms. They generally perceive that family farmers are more caring of their animals than corporate farmers.
The research seemed a natural fit for the Ozark Mountain Pork Cooperative's 50-plus farmer members who produce natural pork. Pigs are raised with no antibiotics or hormones and are all from "heirloom" breeds. The pigs are grown with twice as much space per pig as confinement. Breeders focus on natural pork consistency by exploring ways to control the breeding stock in ways that provide the best marbling and meat quality and "get away from today's institutionalized lean pork product," Vickers says.
Between 80 to 100 pigs are processed each day at the Heritage Acre's plant in Mountain View, Mo. Because of the way the pigs are raised, the processed pork packages carry the American Humane Association's "free farm label," which signifies to consumers that the pork is natural.
"The free farm label has been a real plus in marketing to consumers, but labeling in general has been a challenge," says Vickers. "USDA's natural definition doesn't really apply for a pork label, especially for processed ham and sausage where ingredients are added."
Vickers adds that the Heritage Acres general label is a work in progress. Originally black and white, organizers decided they needed a better consumer presentation and sought assistance from Harriet Blickenstaff, Blick & Staff Communications, St. Louis. Blickenstaff's firm used market research tactics to develop the "food raised with care on family farms" tagline, as well as created a label with a background photo of one of the farms. Blickenstaff is also responsible for the transition from Family Farm Foods to Heritage Acres - a name Vickers says is rooted in trust. She created the trademark, utilizing family farmer photos, and carried the theme into brochures and other materials.
"Harriet's work and third-party verification, such as the American Humane Association label, we're finding is especially important to West Coast customers," adds Russ Kremer, president, Heritage Acres and the Missouri Farmers Union. "As we market the pork for a premium, we believe it is those consumers who will be willing to pay for it."
"If we've learned anything, it is that we should have budgeted for more marketing and promotion dollars," admits Vickers. "We work on marketing every day."
Kremer agrees. "The market research we did does not tell you about the barriers to distribution or the amount of money you need for promotion and advertising," he says. "We decided to initially take the approach of targeting affinity groups, such as union members, with personal meetings and coupons, for example, because we can't afford in-store marketing. We solicit personal support from our consumer base in the same way we built our producer base."
Union members were targeted specifically because they represent the largest group of consumers in Missouri, says Kremer. Union member opinions were also solicited to make up part of the initial research focus groups. In addition, Heritage Acres' pork processing plant uses union labor.
"Producers stayed true to their vision to have a union plant, which has become a selling point," says Kremer. "Our research shows that environmentalists and unionists are more likely to be interested in environmental and social claims and are aware of the farmer's struggles."
Other consumer groups in Missouri are becoming interested in Heritage Acres pork as the product continues to be marketed throughout the state. Heritage Acres pork is sold in 30 grocery stores through a Springfield, Mo., chain, in St. Louis, select restaurants and in California.
"We have had some of our promotional fees picked up and gotten help making our product retail ready," adds Kremer. "That helps expand our community food system."
The AgriMissouri program has provided assistance to the group as well. Deanne Hackman, director, Missouri Department of Agriculture's Ag Business Development Division, says the AgriMissouri program for Missouri product promotion provided a grant to assist with Heritage Acres' start-up expenses and tax credits for investors.
"We also provided some marketing assistance to advertise Heritage Acres products," she says. "We encourage retailers to highlight the pork products in their circular, but we leave the message up to the retailers."
Hackman's department conducts research with Missouri consumers to measure their impressions of information in retail circulars and determine the economic impact of Missouri product brands, including Heritage Acres.
Heritage Acres is also conducting its own unofficial research. In addition to sales figures, feedback is gathered through testing and sampling. "We use our 52 farm families for promotion. At the state fair, we had 10,000 visitors come through. We passed out brochures, pork and reply cards to gather information," Kremer says.
"Watching how the product does in the marketplace is a good way to gauge whether your strategies are working," says Blickenstaff. "If sales are not where you think they should be, then you need to go back and find out why."
Hackman is confident local branding will work for Heritage Acres. "This is a great example of how a small number of farmers can join together and market a high-quality product," she says. "They have created a brand and brand recognition from a small, local market business. They are clear on their message and have utilized marketing and research specialists where appropriate, and those have been the keys to their success."
Stakeholders in the Pony Express Brewery near Kansas City say it's only right that the completely farmer-owned venture markets "Americana." That's what consumers want.
Now in the brewing business for more than six months, Pony Express, which is just one of the local ventures of the TransCon AG new generation cooperative, is churning out three Pony Express beers that focus on American heritage.
"We did focus groups with taste tests to try out positioning statements. The point that resonated was that Pony Express is 100 percent American and cannot be duplicated in any other country," says Mark Vogel, executive vice president, brand management, Osborn & Barr Communications, St. Louis. "The patriotic point had a direct impact on the label design and brand positioning."
Focus groups were conducted by Osborn & Barr in St. Louis, Oklahoma City and San Francisco's Chinatown, and included two demographics - 21- to 27-year-old consumers and 25- to 40-year-old consumers, both male and female.
"Research indicates that beer bottles and labels are iconic to male drinkers and must reinforce the image of the beer drinker in a positive fashion," says Vogel. "Pony Express is personified as young and adventurous. Future marketing plans include creating witty 'Pony Expressions' statements about life and other topics that can be used to market the beer, events and merchandise."
A less-publicized fact, adds Joe Effertz, Pony Express Brewery founder, Belton, Mo., is that the beer is brewed with soy. "With the focus groups, we provided two samples of the same Pony Express beer. We told them one batch had been brewed with soy and the other had not. Consumers said they clearly had a preference for the no-soy beer, even though both batches were exactly the same, so we chose to stay away from that as a marketing point," he says.
Pony Express Gold, and also new Pony Express Original Wheat and Pony Express Rattlesnake Pale Ale, are marketed through Miller Distributing in parts of Kansas and Missouri. Effertz hopes that in a year, they can expand their market into Iowa, Nebraska and the Southwest.
"Pony Express has shown strong potential," adds Vogel. "As with all good brands, there will be some evolution in market penetration and acceptance. Fortunately, Pony Express is backed by solid market research and owners willing to make the right moves to be successful." AM
Barb Baylor Anderson is a freelance writer from Edwardsville, Ill., who covers a wide variety of ag issues.