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Giving beef consumers what they want

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“We were used to producing this great beef for so many years and we would really lose our identity once we shipped the cattle off the feedlot.”

Building a beef brand is a unique challenge that can prove profitable, says Kirstin Kotelko, marketing coordinator with Spring Creek Ranch Premium Beef. Kotelko outlined the company’s beef marketing strategy at Cattleman’s Day at Farmfair International in Edmonton last month.

Kotelko is the fourth generation involved with the family’s business, which includes Spring Creek Ranch and Highland Feeders, located near Vegreville.

Spring Creek Ranch Premium Beef is a branded program which allowed Highland Feeders to add value on the commodity side.

“We were used to producing this great beef for so many years and we would really lose our identity once we shipped the cattle off the feedlot. Basically we’ve been building the protocols for this program for quite a few years now and working with CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) to gain the legislation,” she said.

Spring Creek certifies that its cattle are raised without hormones or antibiotics, and not fed animal byproducts.

“To make these claims, we set up a whole value chain where we work with producers and treat the animals right from birth through the system. We’ve got protocols to follow through with this,” Kotelko said.

Following CFIA protocols enables Spring Creek to make these claims on the packaging. “This was necessary for us because we wanted to be able to tell consumers why our product was different and in order to do so, we had to have the CFIA label,” she said.

All Spring Creek beef is age-verified and under 30 months of age. The company focuses on maintaining premium quality.

“We knew there were consumers looking for hormone-free, antibiotic-free beef but we felt by adding this label we would open up the market to more consumers,” Kotelko said.

The beef is not 100 per cent organic, due to the high cost of producing an organic product.

DEMAND INCREASING

Kotelko said Spring Creek Ranch’s Premium Beef sales have increased 30 per cent since 2006, proving the demand for a hormone-free, antibiotic-free beef. The decision to avoid the organic niche expanded sales and introduced the product to a wider range of consumers.

The company’s strategy involves finding producers who raise cattle in a manner which meets the standards and protocols of the program.

“We discovered that by making sure animals were in the lowest-stress environment and making this simple animal management practice change that we really didn’t need antibiotics at the feedlot level. So this became a key point in our protocol,” said Kotelko.

Producers are then paid a premium for the animals, which are shipped to Highland Feeders where they are finished on grain for a minimum 180 days. “This was really an important step in our distribution as well because by bringing all the animals to Highland Feeders, we are able to monitor them and watch the rate of finishing so we could provide the most consistent product to consumers,” said Kotelko.

About 100 head are shipped to the processing plant every two weeks, with plans to go up to 150 head every two weeks in 2009. The company still retains ownership of the meat after it is slaughtered in Calgary. Spring Creek Ranch Premium Beef currently supplies about 12 Safeway stores with fresh steak. The company has also launched a frozen burger and one-pound ground beef chub in 220 Safeway stores. “It’s been an exciting partnership with them and they’ve really latched on to the brand.”

Many smaller chain retailers and butcher shops on Vancouver Island are buyers of Spring Creek Ranch beef. Distributors across the West are now carrying the brand, which is slowly creeping into Eastern Canada. “The West has just been an easier market for us to penetrate because it’s in our back yard,” Kotelko said. These distributors sell the product to food service supplies, which include restaurants who sell to the consumer.

TELLING A STORY

The packaging of the beef and marketing messages on the product help convey the brand.

“We’ve recognized that consumers want to know more about what they’re consuming and they want to know where it came from and they want to feel a connection to the product that they’re buying,” Kotelko said.

“The commodity beef industry was traditionally not able to offer this information to the consumers. So wherever possible, we like to tell our story. This helps to really evoke emotion, inspire buying habits and create really loyal customers.”

Kotelko said the company found positive results by focusing on premium quality and a consistent product, which influences the majority of sales. “Initially we thought it was because the product was raised naturally but often times we’ll go into a chef and the first thing the chef will say is ‘We love your beef, it’s so consistent.’

“Because we had premium quality, we could also supply to high-quality restaurants and some of the top restaurants in Canada use our product,” she said. “What that means is that our name is on their menu and the top places get talked about and that equals free press.”

Another way the brand promotes consumer knowledge and outreach is through server training in the restaurants.

“We talk about the beef and our standards and we pass this information along to our servers because they’re ultimately the ambassadors for our product. When you get passionate about something then they’re promoting it for you and it creates this word-of mouth marketing and a synergistic effect.”

The company has also worked with the retailers such as Safeway to create salable cuts for the retailer. Being accessible to the consumer has also helped the brand. All the packaging contains the website address and Kotelko’s personal office e-mail.

Due to customer loyalty, the brand hasn’t had to follow market fluctuations and has been able to maintain prices. “It offers a really long-term sustainable option for us,” Kotelko said.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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