Processed Meat, Cancer and the Surprising Marketing Strategy


Yesterday, the World Health Organization classified processed meat as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1), based on sufficient evidence (over 800 studies) in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer. They report that 50g of processed meat a day – less than two slices of bacon – increased the chance of developing colorectal cancer by 18%.

Not good news if you’re in the pork business. The meat industry, in general, has seen its share of issues from the 2008 Maple Leaf Foods listeriosis outbreak to the 2012 XL Foods ecoli recall and even the West Coast avian flu epidemic. So how is this report from the World Health Organization different?

For starters, this issue directly affects the nature of the product itself. It’s not an isolated food safety issue or unlucky virus that found its way into barns but rather an issue that cannot be mitigated by human intervention or crisis management. It will always be there unless the WHO rescinds its report which is highly unlikely.

So, what should hundreds of meat processors do now? What is the marketing strategy they should employ next? What advice should the marketing team be giving to their organization?

1. Expect Long-Term Behavioural Change. Pork processors should expect a slow and gradual decline in sales as consumer behaviour and consumption patterns begin to shift but it won’t fall off a cliff overnight. You will have some consumers purging their fridges but others will take time in deciding whether or not their love and habit of pork products will be reduced.

2. Beware of the Comparable Message. Pork industry lobbyists and the scientists they employ will attempt to contradict the findings with their own research. More importantly, they should be very aware of any message that implies processed meat and smoking are similar in their cancer risk profile. The public loves the contrasting and edgy imagery. Smoking increases your risk of cancer by 86% where processed meats (over 50g/day) increases your risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. They are very different. I would have lawyers on ready to ensure no media source makes that comparison.

3. Reposition as an Indulgent Product. Consumers love the taste of processed meat. They now know it’s not good for them just as we know a lot of sugar or alcohol is not good for us either. Taste is the number one benefit of a food product for consumers. Focus on taste and the “treat” that processed meat is knowing consumers can still enjoy it in moderation but wait until early spring (i.e. Super Bowl) for key messaging to start as the news and New Year’s resolutions will lose impact by that time.

4. Portion Control Solutions. If consumer behaviour forces lower consumption but it’s still a product they like, the next solution is to introduce portion control packaging over the next few years. Smaller sizes that can boast “Now 30% Less” messaging can attract the low occasional consumer. Aligning your product with a newly held belief such as “I shouldn’t eat too much of this” can be a good way to maintain some volume while ensuring consumers are being responsible for their health.

5. Diversify your Portfolio. Processed meat is not a growth industry and probably never will be again…at least not in a major way. The key decision from ownership and senior leaders is how to start to diversify the portfolio in the long-term. What core competencies are transferable to new categories? What key brand values do you have now that could spread into new brand extensions or product lines?

I realize these recommendations are very cursory but I hope they start you thinking down specific paths. I’m thankful for the World Health Organization and their courage to research, report and stand behind the results that will help society. Managing the fallout of those reports and helping organizations who are now affected by them is the true test of professional service providers.

Have a great week!