Americans love chicken wings. Last year they ate three billion pounds of the sauce-covered poultry products. Buffalo Wild Wings, a Minneapolis-based restaurant chain that specializes in wings, has a market cap in excess of $1 billion. Great Sea, my favorite wing place in Chicago, makes Korean-style wings that are so addictive they have wall of fame for most wings consumed by one person in a sitting. (The record is 90.)
Americans also love pork. More than 80% of households eat "the other white meat." Bacon is so beloved it is being added to everything from vodka to ice cream. I've encountered many super consumers in my career, but few are as passionate as the phylum called "Pork Dorks."
So why not combine those two loves and create an innovative new type of food: Pig wings?
Anatomical problems aside, this question was posed to my colleagues and me by Mike Brown, President of Farmland Foods, a division of Smithfield Foods. He and his team are in the midst of transforming Farmland Foods from a supply/commodity company into a demand-driven innovator.
Pig wings are one of many examples of category creation that Farmland is attempting. (Others competitors like Pioneer Meats also market them). The product itself is a delicious cut of pork (which butchers know as the "shank," a part of a pig's leg) that you can eat with your hands like a chicken wing. A review of pig wings describes them as, "surprisingly tender and juicy, pulling clean off the bone." Think of it as a meatier, less messy version of a pork rib. (For a complete New York Times overview of this new delicacy, click here.) Restaurants who serve pig wings say consumers love them.
And yet when marketing the innovation to consumers, Farmland is continually met with skepticism. "Pigs don't have wings," people say, confused. In limited tests in grocery stores, shoppers either walked right by or had no idea how to even consider it.
This is the conundrum of category creation. Products that are truly breakthrough tend to be harder to explain because consumers have no frame of reference or are confused by the offering. This is especially true in food, where getting adult Americans to eat differently is as difficult as getting young kids to eat new food: It takes persuasion, persistence and sometimes peer pressure.
Here are the three things to keep in mind when trying to market a product that creates its own new category:
First, you're usually tapping into latent demand — unmet, unknown and unarticulated consumer needs. So you need new data sources for customer intelligence. And you often need to create it. Think like an entrepreneur: Conduct quick experiments that allow for rapid learning. Fail fast and fail cheap. Use the experiments to create data you can't get elsewhere.
Second, the standard methods that consumer packaged goods companies use to innovate and market new products don't work as well because they are intrinsically more verbal and written. In contrast, new categories often have to be shown and experienced. This is why more experiential business models — like doing rollouts in retail settings that allow for demonstration and sampling — have been a key to the success of category creators like Apple and Starbucks.
Third, category creation tends to be built more locally and socially — and thus more slowly. Word of mouth is critical: Before a consumer will try a new category, he often needs to hear a testimonial from someone he trusts. Social marketing companies like House Party are cracking the code on the new marketing model, as it represents the ideal blend and sequence of local, social, and then national marketing.
Understanding these three concepts, Farmland is taking two important steps to try to help consumers warm up to pig wings:
First, they are partnering with culinary experts to create the latent demand factbase. In other words, they're trying to better understand what chefs might like to do with existing pork products but can't — and better understand why pig wings might be more attractive to chefs than existing products, like ribs. This expert feedback is a great surrogate for customer/consumer insight.
Second, they are pursuing a local, core markets strategy to launch these new pork category creations. Pork is the #1 consumed protein in the world, but only #3 in the US. Yet there are pockets of the US — such as Kansas City — where pork is much stronger. So Farmland has a multi-pronged, local pig wing strategy by partnering with Kansas City venues (including sporting arenas like the Sprint Center, high-end gastropubs like Gram and Dun, and more casual chains that specialize in chicken wings). Consumers who see pig wings in multiple food service venues are much more likely to buy them in a grocery.
Overall, it will take longer to get pig wings into home refrigerators than it would another flavor of deli meat. But the slow approach helps mitigate the risk of a big, splashy marketing launch that may or may not pay back. Ultimately when it comes to category creation, the purveyors of pig wings may learn best from the tortoise and the hare.