No immediate threat
Although an avian-flu epidemic among birds -- let alone humans -- is a long way from hitting America, marketers are moving to ward off a wave of fear that could have disastrous consequences for the $50 billion retail poultry industry. With producers Tyson Foods and Pilgrim's Pride already suffering slower sales, the race is on to educate the public as ABC-TV prepares to air this week a disaster drama about avian flu and the U.S. government unleashes public service announcements about the flu.
Producers and fast feeders McDonald's, El Pollo Loco, Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits, Subway and KFC, previously wary of taking on the issue directly, are now waging a massive marketing-communications program singly and through trade associations to reassure consumers that eating chicken is safe.
"It's really an educational message trying to cut through the sensational messages like the TV movie coming out," said David Cyphers, president of the Cyphers Agency -- an Annapolis shop that has been retained by the National Chicken Council, which represents 95% of the country's chicken producers -- to handle its communication blitz. "Even the government trying to do things with preparations ... does tend to scare people."
In a radio ad produced in-house from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a wife assures her husband about his dinner. "It's highly unlikely affected birds would reach the food supply," she says. "A few simple steps ensures it's safe, even from the bird-flu virus." Straight-talking TV spots feature Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns. "A lot of misinformation is circulating about avian flu," he says in one. "We have safeguards to protect our poultry [and] you have the power to protect yourself by properly preparing and cooking it."
Richard Lobb, director-communications for the Chicken Council, attempted to persuade ABC to change the word "bird" to "pandemic" in the title of it movie airing May 9, "Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America," about a human pandemic started by an American who brings the virus home after visiting an open market in Asia. The lobbying failed, but he did persuade the networks to run a disclaimer before the film.
Fully cooked chickens
The Council has posted on its Web site an informational video created by Marsteller featuring healthy birds and messages that avian flu can't be contracted from eating fully cooked chickens.
Cyphers has also developed for NCC members and other trade groups a full spectrum of materials including brochures, fliers, posters for processing employees, restaurant workers and grocery stores, along with table tents for retailers and food service. So far, there are no plans for broadcast media. "Right now, it's more about arming the industry and letting them disseminate it," said Mr. Cyphers.
Yum Brands' KFC, an early mover since last fall among domestic marketers in setting contingency plans for the flu, is distributing to its outlets stickers bearing the image of Colonel Sanders for use on its ubiquitous red-and-white buckets reading "Thoroughly cooked, rigorously inspected, quality assured."
Popeyes for about two months has used a similar quality icon on its Web site and in-store materials with the words "quality partners, quality process, quality product" encircling "360 Degrees." It set contingency plans based on trigger points set by the NCC and the National Restaurant Association and is watching responses from consumers and competitors, media cover age and blogs, said Alicia Thompson, VP-communications and PR.
El Pollo Loco measures
El Pollo Loco also has a comprehensive contingency plan with its own quality icon and Web page, said Mark Hardison, director-marketing for the 340-plus unit chain. Each restaurant has a door cling with the icon on every door and at the drive-thru. Bilingual brochures at the front counter promote the message of safeguards from farm to table. "We hope at this point we never have to address avian flu directly," he said. "It depends on how the media picks up on the movie [this] week and whether it sensationalizes how much of a threat avian flu is." So far the chain has spent about $80,000 in materials.
Currently, the nation's biggest burger and sandwich chains from McDonald's to Subway have plans in place but have been mum on specifics.
Chicken producers have already been feeling the effects of bird flu overseas on their financials amid shrinking demand and exportation bans. Last week, Tyson reported its biggest quarterly loss in at least a decade on flu fears and has been conducting ongoing quantitative research to gauge consumer perceptions on a variety of topics, including avian flu. "To date, the results show very little change in consumer confidence in American chicken products, and no change in purchase behavior," said a spokesman. "If this begins to change, we're prepared to communicate directly to consumers about the safety of our products." It's also running a video Q&A on its Web site about bird flu with one of its executives.
Domestic chicken sales drop
Pilgrim's Pride plans to cut chicken production by 3% on excess inventory. It reported last week that its U.S. operations saw market pricing in the second quarter fall 30% from a year ago and domestic chicken sales volume drop 4% on lower demand.
Research firm Iconoculture hosted an avian-flu-preparedness Webcast last month that drew 130 marketers, from corporations to ad agencies, insurance companies and travel and leisure firms. "Our industry is a reactionary industry. We throw all our resources against the problem after it's a problem," said Larry Wu, VP-consumer strategist-food and beverage at the firm. His advice to marketers: "Start building trust with your consumers now."
~ ~ ~
Ira Teinowitz contributed to this report.