A smart approach to data for retailer buyers paired with a package design that delivers a strong brand persona

There’s a memorable scene in the 1984 movie Moscow on the Hudson in which the late Robin Williams plays a Russian defector who hyperventilates in a supermarket after being overwhelmed by the multitude of choices on store shelves.

One wonders how the character would handle today’s healthier meat options, such as grass-fed beef from New Zealand and Australia.

Chicago-based meat importer PRE Brands recently underwent a visual makeover, conceived and executed by brand design consultancy Ciulla Associates, also of the Windy City, that’s already grabbing market share with its beef imported from Down Under.

Long incubator to market

PRE founder and CEO Lenny Lebovich, a former investment banker and securities analyst, unexpectedly found himself in the meat industry in the early 2000s when he joined a former college roommate looking to grow a family business.

They then turned around a meat-manufacturing facility that within two years gained national distribution. The partners then targeted organic meat, a rapidly growing but still nascent market.

Lebovich decided to go solo to start from scratch “Lenny’s Grass-Fed Beefs,” although the economic downturn and failure to find capital forced him to close in 2010. Two years later he decided to give it another shot, travelling the world, including Brazil, Central America and Europe, to study the global meat supply chain in search of the world’s best tasting meat. He settled on Australia and New Zealand. In contrast, most U.S. beef originates from grain-fed cattle in a very industrialized, processed supply chain.

The hiatus might have been fortunate because PRE’s “no antibiotics, no hormones, and 100% grass-fed” jibed with consumers moving in the direction of healthier, better eating options. Privately held, PRE in 2016 was the fastest growing U.S. beef brand with a growth rate of 460%, according to Nielsen. Supermarket News recognized PRE as a “Top 25 Disruptor.” [Editor’s note: Supermarket News is not affiliated with Brand Experience magazine or ST Media Group International.]

Data drives best practices

Funding finally became available, enabling PRE to debut in 15 Chicago retail stores that “cared about a higher quality product.” Soon thereafter PRE picked up the No. 2 Illinois supermarket chain, Mariano’s, now a Kroger’s division.

“[PRE] is an innovator,” raves Brian Dicken, Mariano’s vice president of meat and seafood. “They’re very successful,” he adds, reporting sales of PRE product is up more than 30% over last year in 41 Mariano’s stores, each which are visited by PRE sales reps twice a week “to check what’s going on in the stores.”

By closely monitoring sales, buyers are better able to avoid shrinkage, an area that PRE excels, in part controlled through a unique barcode. Unlike most meat suppliers, PRE’s nine SKUs weigh the same, allowing better tracking. According to Lebovich, PRE competitors—both grass- and grain-fed—are focused on price and shelf, whereas PRE’s data-driven model treat beef is unusual in the meat world. In fact, most of PRE’s management came from the CPG sectors other than fresh meat, such as his first hire who previously oversaw Johnson & Johnson’s beauty care brands. “She wanted to make beef beautiful,” says Lebovich, who also wanted to make PRE products literally transparent through customized Cryovac packaging that allows the buyer to inspect the meat from all sides, which had been introduced by PRE’s first agency.

Praising the easy-tear package, Dicken notes that Mariano’s “customers didn’t want to touch meat in its raw state.”

Part of PRE’s success can be attributed to collaboration between the brand and its brand design agency at the top of the organizational chart. Sam J. Ciulla, Ciulla Associates’ founder, CEO and executive creative director, notes that working with smaller entrepreneurial companies like PRE provides the opportunity to remove layers of hierarchy and work directly with the CEO and establish primary objectives such as PRE’s objectives

Recipe for success

The PRE package’s backside also provides a flip-up card containing a recipe, which helps deliver its better taste objective and gives consumer confidence “they’re not going to screw it up,” notes Ciulla, adding that the design motif the agency created, emphasizing taste, carried over to PRE’s website.

“Cooking an expensive piece of beef can be intimating,” notes Ciulla. “Our front to back panel approach does a great job in communicating to consumers, ‘This is going to taste great, and I can do it!’”

two-thirds of meat bought in the U.S. is at supermarkets and mass merchandisers. Currently in about 650 stores across 20 states, including major merchandisers Meyer’s and B.J.’s Wholesale Club, PRE still only reaches roughly 2% of overall retail distribution. “That’s a lot room to run,” sums up Lebovich.

Larry Jaffee