If you are following the "lean, finely textured beef" story, aka "pink slime," you are witnessing not only the frying of Beef Products Inc. but also the bashing of the entire meat industry.
Pink slime -- a catchy sobriquet that captured the anger and vexation of a public that felt double-crossed -- led to plant shutdowns, job losses, a bankruptcy filing and a PR nightmare. It did not seem to matter that lean, finely textured beef had been approved as safe by the Department of Agriculture for years, is 100% beef and probably tastes as good as the ground beef it is mixed with.
The shame of it all is that Beef Products Inc. appears to be a good company. Companies and brands -- whether consumer-facing or not -- must realize the power that language has in the cyberspace marketplace. Through Twitter and Facebook postings, the crowd rules and demands transparency. There's no way you can control it to preserve your reputation.
The old ways of conducting business don't cut it anymore. But there's hope. If "pink slime" demonstrates the power of language, it follows that companies and brands can also use language to communicate in powerful, meaningful ways -- ahead of the crowd. It's known as verbal branding, and it's essential for protecting proprietary products, and for framing the dialogue between a company and its prospects.
There are several excellent examples of how companies have crafted language to establish their difference. Starbucks changed how we drink coffee and our language for ordering it: "Venti, please." Viagra, an empty-vessel name, ushered in the era of "lifestyle drugs" and informed us that it was designed specifically to treat a physical condition called "erectile dysfunction." Imagine how awkward the commercials would be if Viagra were named Erectomax and treated "impotence."
The brouhaha over pink slime sheds light on how companies can use the elements of verbal branding to their advantage:
Corporate Identity. View this a means of establishing an emotional connection with your audience. Good corporate names are distinctive and engaging, like Ikea, Twitter and Apple. Food and food supplier companies may not need to be as bold, but they should differentiate themselves. A recent headline had me confused for a moment: "Beef Products Company Files for Bankruptcy And Blames Pink Slime." It was not Beef Products Inc. that filed for Chapter 11, it was another beef company, AFA Foods. A generic corporate name such as Beef Products Inc. (and the acronym BPI) may describe the business but do little to support its commitment to safety, quality or its tagline, "Expect a Higher Standard."
Product Descriptors. Beef Products Inc. admitted that there's a lot of misinformation about lean, finely textured beef. It has multiple product descriptors: hamburger filler, ammonia meat additive, mechanically separated meat, byproduct, pink product, lean beef source, lean beef trimmings and, finally, 100% beef. A good descriptor helps explain an innovative product: an iPad is a tablet; the Vuezone is a personal video network. Crafting an accurate and appetizing descriptor, and using it consistently, could have helped BPI correct the misinformation.
Proprietary Names. In 1937 Jay Hormel blended the words "spiced ham" to create the name for his new luncheon meat, Spam. The name has been spoofed over the years, including in Monty Python's Spamalot, but Hormel is the one laughing -- all the way to the bank. The USDA didn't require Beef Products Inc. to label its pioneering technological innovation, so its appellation became "lean, finely textured beef." Another handle applied indiscriminately is "boneless, lean-beef trimmings." As if those terms aren't generic enough, the acronyms LFTB and BLBT also serve as tags.
Although use of one accurate, evocative trademark for lean, finely textured beef would not have averted the PR crisis, the lack of such a name made it easier for critics to fill the gap with the toxic "pink slime" epithet. Absent a brand name, Beef Products Inc. might have considered a branded approach to protect its food-processing technology. Such a strategy would have been as ground-breaking in the meat industry as NutraSweet was in food and beverage and "Intel Inside" was for the computer chip.
Verbal branding is essential in a time when people have shorter attention spans yet greater access to experiencing a brand in both real-world and virtual modes. Today, when people don't understand or agree about your product, the world is going to hear about it, loudly and quickly.