I know zilch about farming or ranching, so let’s get that out of the way.
What I do know is marketing, and admittedly I have eaten fast food once or twice (today).
I’m fascinated by Premier Brad Wall’s trolling of A&W over their beef. Fascinated, because I know Wall understands the free-market, and certainly understands the importance of trade with other countries, yet he sees fit to put this one corporation on blast for not (gasp!) solely sourcing a product from Canada.
The gist of the issue of the feud between the Premier of Saskatchewan and A&W is this:
- A&W boasts about being “the first and only national burger restaurant in Canada to serve beef raised without the use of hormones or steroids”;
- Premier Brad Wall responds on Twitter that A&W’s pledge is un-Canadian and unfairly taints conventional cattle ranchers.
All I’m going to do here is explore those two themes, because as I mentioned above, I love steak and I love fast food, including A&W, and I have no intention of picking a side.
The Fuss About Hormones
I heard Brad Wall on the radio talking about how there are tens of thousands of nanosomethings of hormones in both the burger bun and the side of French fries, so what’s a few more in the beef going to hurt?
He’s totally right about the bun and the fries. Naturally occurring hormones exist not only in our own bodies, but in virtually everything we consume, plant or animal-based, because without hormones, nothing can grow. Further, the USDA, the CFIA and every other acronym-laden government designed to protect our delicate digestive tracks are cool with us eating additional hormones injected into beef.
Except eating anything that has been ‘injected’ sounds gross, which is why marketing against the practice is so successful (we’ll get to that in a minute). Yet while it may sound gross, eating an old cow is even grosser. Have you ever tried it? So gross.
If, like me, you prefer a tender cut of beefy-goodness, you’re going to want to eat a younger animal. The problem? Younger animals are usually smaller, meaning less meat, lower market supply, and damage to the rancher’s bottom line.
Enter the growth hormone, a teeny pellet, about 2mm in diameter, inserted by hypodermic needle into the calf’s ear between the skin and the cartilage. Over the next 60 to 120 days the pellet slowly releases hormones – typically some combination of progesterone, estrogen and testosterone, or something that stimulates the cow’s production of these hormones – and voila! a bigger, leaner cow – faster.
To some people, this process isn’t cool, or appetizing, and you know what? That’s totally fine. The beauty of the free market is you have options.
Like A&W, for example.
Now to be abundantly clear, there are absolutely no proven health benefits to eating growth-hormone-free beef over conventionally-raised beef (which, by the way, has flushed the pellet-provided hormones out of its system long before it ever enters your mouth). There are also no proven health risks to eating beef with added hormones. For example, there is no proven link to the notion that hormones in food are causing children to enter puberty at a younger age than they did a generation or two ago. I’m pretty sure Snapchat and
porn on the internet has more to do with that than your kid’s Big Mac ever will.
Which leads us into…
I totally agree with Wall – those A&W commercials are brutal. Firstly, by using the phrase “hormone-free” A&W isn’t being particularly truthful, because as we established above, all food contains hormones. In fact, I’m kind of surprised Advertising Standards Canada (now just called Ad Standards), hasn’t intervened, given that the very first clause in their Canadian Code of Advertising Standards is Accuracy and Clarity, which reads in part:
“Advertisements must not contain, or directly or by implication make, inaccurate, deceptive or otherwise misleading claims, statements, illustrations or representations.”
Secondly, the dude in those ads is insufferable. He was cute as the long-suffering, good-natured manager of a hapless A&W trainee, but I just CANNOT with him as the serious, sensitive spokesman staring intently into the eyes of an Ontario rancher as she tells him how she would never, ever, EVER put anything in her cows, except her heart and soul.
The thing is though, it’s working.
A&W’s marketing campaign has been running since 2013, and their sales are through the roof. According to their 2016 annual report to investors, “same store sales growth for 2016 was 3.4% as compared to 2015. The 2015 and 2016 two year stacked annual same store sales growth was +11.0%.”
The report goes on to attribute those results (which are enhanced by skyrocketing franchise numbers) directly to “A&W’s strategic commitment to better ingredients, including beef raised without the use of hormones or steroids…”
Then, just to drive the point home (emphasis mine), “These positive sales results were achieved in a challenging year for the foodservice industry in Canada, particularly in Alberta and Saskatchewan.”
IOW, the Saskatchewan Premier’s anti-A&W Tweets aren’t working.
And really, why should they? A&W has a solid marketing strategy appealing to a niche group of consumers, and its success is stimulating sales and the economy, including right here in Saskatchewan. There are 29 A&W locations in this province, with about half of them situated in small towns from Meadow Lake to Davidson and beyond (show me a rural rink without an A&W sponsorship sign). That equals roughly 600 jobs for Saskatchewan residents.
According to A&W, they are buying some, though not all, of their beef from Saskatchewan and Alberta cattle ranchers. Sure, they’re also sourcing beef from other countries, but unless every last vegetable you’ve consumed this summer was bought locally, why would you care? There is no moral superiority in supporting beef producers over vegetable producers.
Or is there?
Consider McDonald’s, which runs a strong marketing campaign based on its use of 100% Canadian beef in their burgers. Admirable, and it’s won them a spot on Team Wall.
— Brad Wall (@PremierBradWall) November 19, 2016
While what McDonald’s is doing for Canadian ranchers is great, what they’re really doing is playing on the inherent trust many, if not most, people have in farmers and ranchers, and then positioning themselves as close to that trustworthy, wholesome image as possible.
A&W, on the other hand, is focusing it’s marketing on the “naturalization” of food. Consider the “humanely-raised” rotisserie chicken at the grocery store for a dollar more than the cruelly-raised chicken beside it. They’re both dead, but there are clearly people who prefer to eat a humanely raised chicken, and the market is responding. It’s just another marketing strategy designed to elevate one animal-based product over another, and it works, yet I haven’t heard the Premier freaking out about it.
Surely that wouldn’t be because standing up for chicken farmers isn’t quite as sexy as standing up for the rugged, dependable rancher, would it?
Premier Brad Wall says he is passionate about this battle because it’s not just about the beef industry, it’s about standing up for the entire agricultural industry, which is often the target of these pro-naturalization marketing strategies, i.e. the anti-GMO movement.
Except I’m pretty sure no one has ever connected GMO-crop farmers to Wall’s vendetta against A&W’s burgers. If he wants to stand up for the modern agricultural industry, then he should, but it’s a much bigger, complex issue than he’s ever going to accomplish in a few Tweets.
In the meantime, I’m not really sure what kind of battle the Premier’s so intent on manufacturing here. You have a restaurant chain running a successful marketing campaign that is creating a niche product demand, and some Canadian ranchers are stepping up to meet it. I don’t see A&W putting McDonald’s out of business anytime soon, so they’ll continue to source their beef from other Canadian ranchers. That’s pretty much exactly how the free market is supposed to work.
What I do know for sure is that it makes for an awfully convenient distraction, especially when
the GTH is blowing up and the leadership race is a trainwreck things get tense.
Anyway, I’m going to continue to enjoy a beloved Mozza Burger whenever I want, especially after picking one up in Davidson en route to Rider games from Saskatoon. Everyone knows McDonald’s is for the way home.
For those of you who care, I’m Tammy Robert. I’m a writer, but pay the bills consulting in media and public relations. Email me anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org
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