Framing the beef conversation to connect with consumers

Jan 25, 2013

—How you tell the story is often as important as what you say.

It’s been said so many times and in so many ways: ranchers must tell their story. It’s a necessary part of the job these days. But simply being told “tell your story” and hearing the importance of doing so isn’t very helpful. So here’s a bit of Communication 101 that might help you in telling your ranching story.


The academic study of communication—literary, poetic, historical, journalistic, theatrical, and so on— abounds with theories. Theories to describe why we communicate, the many ways we do it, what works, what doesn’t, and to name everything imaginable. But one of the most common communication theories which you are likely very familiar with without even knowing it is framing theory.

At its most basic, framing in communication refers to how a message is presented, rather than the content of the message, and how that presentation affects audience interpretation of the message.

If you think about it in terms of a physical frame, the type of frame on a painting changes the way audiences see that painting. A heavy dark frame might make the painting’s scene look gloomy while a bright one might make it look cheery. A heavy, ornate frame might draw attention away from the painting, while a small, minimalistic frame would not.

The perception changes because of the frame, even though the painting itself did not.

Plenty of examples of framing in communication can be seen on the evening news. Is the story of a natural disaster presented as a human suffering issue, or as an economic impact?

The way the story of that natural disaster is told will impact how audiences react to it and that can influence how they will respond. Perhaps the person who heard the human suffering rendition will be more likely to donate to a charity created for the victims of that disaster compared to the person who heard the economic impact rendition.

In changing the frame of the story—the perspective from which the same event was told—how receptive the audience is to the message and what actions they might take as a result changes. This is something to keep in mind when telling the beef story.

The beef story

“I hope to stimulate this industry into thinking ‘Is there a different way we can talk about all the good things we do?’” said John Lundeen, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s senior executive director of marketing research, at the outset of his presentation to the 2013 International Livestock Congress. He went on to ask a question.

“Is there a way we can modify our communication that the consumer likes, that connects with what the consumer wants?” The answer is yes. But the answer lies in knowing what resonates most with consumers.

Lundeen pointed out throughout his presentation that there is a disconnect between what the ranching world is telling consumers and what consumers are asking. He presented the results of a checkoff-funded consumer research study which compared what types of stories about beef—what types of frames—were being shared in traditional versus social media.

In traditional, mainstream media, 42 percent of beef-related stories were told from an economic perspective, 21 percent were told from a safety perspective, and 21 percent were told from an environmental perspective. The other 16 percent of surveyed stories were told from other perspectives.

But in social media— where consumers and their concerns, values and interests drive the conversation—the topic of safety represented 42 percent of all communications about beef. Following that was nutrition qualities of beef at 39 percent, environmental at 24 percent, and animal rights/animal welfare topics at 21 percent. Percentages adding up to more than 100 percent resulted from social media conversations about beef often having overlapping focuses.

Notice what connects those top two consumer interests of safety and nutrition? Consumer self-interest. Lundeen summed it up using a line from a U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance study.

“Here’s what the consumer wants to know: ‘How are modern farming practices affecting my family’s long term health?’” Lundeen presented the findings of another consumer research project, this one dealing more directly with the issue of framing as presented above, though he referred to it by other terms. He showed a stacked hierarchy of messages presented to the consumer regarding feedlots. In order of least positive message reception to most positive message reception, his hierarchy went hormone use, environmental practices, feedlot benefits, human involvement, cattle diet, cattle care, and topping all of these was human health.

“At the bottom, we could not find a positive message.” Consumers were not receptive to messages about the direct benefits of hormone use in cattle in feedlots. Direct benefits were things like feed conversion, efficiency, and economic benefits.

“But what if we elevate that conversation about hormone use and link it higher? Link it to the cattle diet or cattle care? Because, otherwise, if it’s just a story about affordability, we are not connecting with the consumer.”

“There is a way to rephrase that conversation,” Lundeen went on. He described how putting hormone use in the frame of environmental benefits improved consumer reception of the message. And as hormone use was put into the frames of human involvement and cattle diet— that veterinarians and animal nutritionists oversee the use of hormones to improve cattle’s use of beneficial diets—the messages were even more well received.

Finally, Lundeen pointed out the pinnacle importance of the human health frame—that perspective which saw the largest social media attention—by saying, “human health trumps everything else.”

“If we can take any message down lower on this scale and tie it to the quality and nutritional aspect of our product, you turn that story into a positive.”

Lundeen explained how, in talking about beef and cattle ranching practices, placing the conversation in the frame of nutrition and long-term wellbeing of the consumer had the most positive reception. “It elevated that conversation, because now it’s the beef and now it’s what you’re feeding my family and you’re giving me a great, nutritious product.”

So when you go about telling your story, consider the frame in which you place your message. Research strongly suggests consumers are interested in those renditions of the beef story which deal with their concerns, namely their long-term health and that of their family.

If you can discuss a difficult, contentious, or frequently misunderstood topic like antibiotic or hormone use in terms of their relevance to long-term human health, you will have a better connection with the interests and concerns of the consumers you communicate with. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor