Stop Apologizing for Pork: Flavor is the Way Forward, By Patrick Fleming

At the Illinois Pork Expo on January 30, Ever.Ag chief livestock economist Steve Meyer summed up the state of the pork industry: “Things are looking better, but not good.” As proof, he pointed out lower input costs, stronger wholesale demand, recovery in consumer-level demand and significant improvements in herd health. Restoring the industry to profitability will require a combination of lower costs, higher demand and lower pork supplies.1 While that’s all true, I think Meyer left out a critical component: marketing.

How did we get to this point? Well, pork producers have lost money for the last 14 to 16 months and packers have been only marginally profitable. While beef and chicken have kept pace with inflation, pork has not. Pork is the only deflationary protein.2

Since pork is relatively inexpensive, you’d think this would be a time for pork to thrive. Traditionally, when pork is a competitive value, pork sales go up. This time it hasn’t, as demand for pork is soft or declining. Unlike the supply of beef, pork is readily available and consumers are still shopping for protein. That begs the question: Why aren’t we building share?

There are a number of reasons for soft pork sales. First, there’s been a significant shift in consumer demographics. Traditional pork consumers tend to be baby boomers, who are empty nesters now. They still have high affinity for pork, but their consumption rates are falling. When there are only two people in the home, you don’t need the family pack of pork chops.

At the same time, the industry has struggled to build relevance with Millennials and Gen Zs. These groups do engage with pork, but it’s mostly via charcuterie and pizza toppings — not fresh pork. Millennials and Gen Z are also having fewer kids than previous generations, but we’re still merchandising pork the same way we always have, with family packs and pork chop assortments. As family sizes shrink, we have to make pork available in the cuts and portions that fit younger consumers’ lifestyles and make them comfortable buying pork at grocery stores and butcher shops and ordering it at restaurants.

Essentially, the pork industry is where lamb was in the U.S. in the 1970s. Lamb had a customer base of European immigrants who ate it regularly, but as their customer base died out, so did lamb sales. Now lamb is a niche, boutique product. Pork is headed that way unless we pass down its relevance to younger generations. The way to do that is through marketing.

There are three key ways to use marketing to help pork recover market share:

  • Stop apologizing for pork. It’s much more than just “the other white meat.” There’s always been the perception that pork is somehow inferior to other proteins and the pork industry has leaned into this thinking: “Sorry, the last time we sold you a pork chop, it was tough and dry. Buy it again and it’ll probably be a little less dry because we’ve got a recipe for gravy.” Takeaway: Switch the messaging to highlight the positive and make pork a star in its own right.
  • Build relevancy with modern consumers. Pork is still one of the most consumed proteins in the world. It is culturally relevant in authentic world cuisines and remains the protein of preference throughout Asia and Latin America. We need to connect with the younger generations in the U.S. who want more authenticity and more flavor in their food. That’s why charcuterie is so popular among Millennials and Gen Zs: They enjoy the social interaction but they also love the flavor. All the Italian dries are pork and nothing else tastes like them. Takeaway: Position pork as a meaningful protein that fits the lifestyles of Millennials and Gen Zs.
  • Embrace flavor as the way forward for pork. We have to celebrate what makes pork special: From pepperoni to pork chops, flavor is pork’s calling card. Ultimately, people buy pork because it delivers on flavor — not for health reasons, nutrition benefits or even animal welfare concerns. Don’t get me wrong — while these claims are important, what consumers really want is permission to eat pork. Think ham and sausage and everyone’s favorite, bacon. (If you don’t love bacon, I don’t want to talk to you.) Takeaway: Make it easy for consumers to choose pork by singing the praises of its crave-worthy flavor.

If we don’t want pork to be left behind, it’s time for the pork industry to stop apologizing for how pork has been perceived in the past and innovate its marketing approach to show how pork is relevant to today’s consumers. And oh, by the way: Pork really does taste phenomenal — and it doesn’t need gravy.

About the Author

With his plethora of knowledge of all things pork, you might say that Patrick Fleming is a modern-day “Pork Yoda.” He has held a number of key positions in the industry, including area business manager at Johnsonville®, Western Regional Sales Manager at Laura’s™ Lean Beef and Director of Marketing at the National Pork Board. Before coming to Midan, Patrick played a key role in updating pork nomenclature by bringing in beef terminology and simplifying labels for consumers. Now, he provides strategic outlook and supervision of branded pork programs, securing distribution and brand development. Patrick earned a bachelor’s in political science from Arizona State University and a master’s in organizational management from the University of Phoenix. When not revolutionizing the U.S. pork industry, Patrick enjoys reading, travelling and spending time with family.