What’s in a name? Ask food companies contending with perception issues centering on names ascribed to their controversial products. The manufacturers of high fructose corn syrup are going to court to preserve the right to use their rebranding, “corn sugar.” Beef producers are fighting a rebrand not of their choosing for lean, finely textured beef, “pink slime.”
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) had been a little-pondered product and term, best known for its placement in the crawl of ingredients for a vast array of food and beverages. After widespread commercial use for more than 30 years, HFCS became the target of studies and resultant media coverage linking it to obesity.
Since HFCS is derived from a chemical process, its detractors have derided it as “man-made.” Some detractors have marketing motives. The sugar industry, which saw its dominance in the sweetening business undermined by HFCS, has pressed the case against its corn rival. Proof of successful anti-HFCS efforts is the number of products that tout the absence of high fructose corn syrup via their packaging. Perhaps this takes some of the sting out of decades of “sugar-free” messaging in food and beverages and the elimination of the word from breakfast cereal brands. (Yes, I’m old enough to remember “Sugar Pops,” “Sugar Crisp” and “Sugar Smacks.” I’m also old enough to believe anything Mr. Spock says–see above image.)
The Corn Refiners Association launched an ad campaign in 2008 stressing HFCS’ natural origins and indistinguishability from sugar extracted from cane and beets. The association has promoted a new term for HFCS, “corn sugar,” a hopeful rebrand reminiscent of prunes’ transformation into “dried plums.” Looking to extend their victories in the court of public opinion into federal court, sugar producers are suing corn producers to stop the use of the corn sugar brand.
Whereas corn sugar may be a name worth fighting for, “pink slime” is definitely not. It is the infelicitous term for what beef producers prefer to call lean, finely textured beef, a filler comprising trimmings subjected to an ammonia-based gas to kill pathogens. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver decried the filler process on his television show, and the campaign against pink slime has gone viral through social media and a Change.org petition to stop its use in school lunches.
The American Meat Institute has responded with a public statement defending the filler as nutritious, safe, government-approved and cost-efficient. Journalist Laura Rance considers the statement more flatfooted PR from the beef industry as it continues to be assailed for health and environmental detriments. In addition to numerous stories on the pink slime backlash, media have recently covered a Harvard medical study that concludes daily red meat consumption can increase premature deaths by 13 percent or more.
The corn sugar and pink slime controversies underscore the importance of public relations and positioning. Perceptions about the products in question and the industries producing them are poor. HFCS and lean, finely textured beef are difficult to defend since consumption of both is linked to health problems. The Corn Refiners Alliance’s best argument is that their product is the equal of two evils. To justify their now-famous filler, the meat industry must literally showcase “how sausage is made,” an old saying for something people would rather not see.
The overriding issue is that HFCS and lean, finely textured beef are industrial products, never designed or branded to be marketed directly to consumers. In the Internet age, consumer awareness has increased greatly. Every product, ingredient and component must have a “consumer face.” A court verdict may end corn refiners’ attempts to rehabilitate the image of high fructose corn syrup with a two-word redefinition. For its embattled product, the meat industry would be delighted to make do with the type of technical designation that the corn industry is shunning. Thought leaders and the public–not a marketing team–developed its two-word term.
Corn sugar. Pink slime. Consumers will be the ultimate brand managers for both.