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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU researchers study consumers' beef preferences

When dinner guests sit down to enjoy a juicy steak, it's clear they've made a choice to treat themselves to a nice meal. But does it matter to them where the beef came from, or how the cattle that provided the beef were raised?

Volunteers at NMSU's 100 West Café sample beef from the Branch Ranch in southeastern New Mexico. From left are Magellia Boston, Jan Martin and Ginny Schoelzel. (NMSU photo by Darrell J. Pehr)

With the New Mexico beef industry generating some $905 million annually, a total U.S. beef consumption of 28 billion pounds per year and the increased cost of producing beef due to competition for corn with the biofuels industry, beef marketing decisions and feedback from consumers can be critical.

To help answer some of the questions regarding consumer preferences, New Mexico State University is partnering with the Branch Ranch-Natural Beef of New Mexico in Lovington, N.M., on a year-long research project that is focusing on branded beef products. Branch Ranch already has experience producing "natural beef" by marketing to companies such as Coleman Natural and IBP-Tyson. Natural beef is a product certified by USDA and in general is defined as beef that was produced without the use antibiotics and added growth promotants (i.e., hormones).

"In order to remain competitive and to develop effective marketing strategies, beef producers must understand the basic factors underlying beef consumption," said Kassi M. Laney, a student in NMSU's Department of Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Business. "One possible marketing strategy that may be adopted by beef producers is product 'branding.' A difficulty associated with branding beef is that beef is commonly considered a 'commodity.' That is, historically beef has been considered a homogeneous good. It is difficult to communicate specific characteristics or qualities that make one particular supplier's beef unique from others. While challenging, branding of agricultural commodities is not impossible."

Laney is serving as coordinator of the project, and the project will be the focus of her master's thesis. She pointed out that some states already have branding projects in place to differentiate their beef, such as South Dakota and Wisconsin. The Kansas City Steak Company, for example, has wide name recognition.

"The primary objective of this project is to explore market opportunities for a branded beef product originating from New Mexico," Laney said. "Researchers will look at opportunities that may exist for the Branch Ranch to participate in this branding effort."

The project will include examination of trends in the beef industry including both production and demand that may influence the ability of the Branch Ranch to develop a branded beef product; identification and review of popular branded beef products available on the market; review of existing or proposed branded beef programs developed by various state or industry groups; comparison of consumer preferences for branded beef products relative to generic beef products; and comparison of beef originating from the Branch Ranch and generic beef products.

"It will give us insight into what people are thinking," said Milt Thomas, a beef cattle physiology and genetics researcher in NMSU's Department of Animal and Range Sciences. Thomas and Professor Jack Thomas will guide students who work on this project within the Department of Animal and Range Science. Both professors think it is a great opportunity to expose animal science students to the serving of a food product. Steaks from this project are being served in the 100 West Café, which is a teaching restaurant managed by the NMSU School of Hotel Restaurant and Tourism Management. Chef John Hartley is mentoring the students working in the restaurant on this project. He also thinks this is a great opportunity for students interested in food service to learn about the origin and management of meat products. Cumulatively, the project demonstrates the strength of connection between New Mexico State University's teaching and research programs.

Laney and Jay Lillywhite, assistant professor of Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Business, will conduct research relating to consumer preferences for branded beef products. Laney will serve as the overall project coordinator and will be responsible for providing project updates to Branch Ranch management.

Under the guidance and direction of Kevin Boberg, associate dean of the College of Business and the NMSU Arrowhead Center, a team with experience in economic development will also conduct research associated with developing a branded beef product. Students and staff in this program will work independently of the other university researchers. This strategy will give the Branch Ranch a view of the project from economic development independent of the researchers that focus their careers on livestock production.

Milt Thomas said the Branch Ranch, owned by the Dan Field family, is a unique company that includes a cow-calf operation, its own feedlot and now an interest in developing its own beef marketing abilities. Several family members are NMSU graduates and one family member has training in culinary arts and experience in a catering business. They truly have the ability to market their slogan, "From Start to Steak."

In addition to their longtime tradition of supporting NMSU, the Field family is turning to NMSU for its unique ability to conduct this kind of research.

"I think they like the idea of working with the university because we can pull so much expertise together," Milt Thomas said.

Students will be involved in harvesting the steaks, serving the beef and conducting the surveys, "so it's not just a faculty project," Laney said.

The survey work will be done through the 100 West Café in the College of Agriculture and Home Economics. Consumer preferences for Branch Ranch beef will be examined using volunteers dining at the 100 West Café. Participants will be served meals featuring Branch Ranch beef and will then be asked to describe their impressions using a brief survey questionnaire. Due to the limited budget, all consumer work will be conducted using New Mexico residents, including NMSU faculty and students.

Upon completion of the research, a written report summarizing results and providing suggestions regarding future direction will be provided. Also, a verbal presentation will be developed and presented to Branch Ranch management.

Reports from the Arrowhead Center and involved MBA students will provide an independently prepared report and presentation to Branch Ranch management.

A final report and presentation will be made in January 2009.