When the Animal Agriculture Alliance gathered for its annual stakeholders meeting last year, the theme of the conference was “Activists at the Door.” The panels focused on “farm protection laws,” or ag-gag laws, painting a picture of a victimized ranching industry pushing back an onslaught of disingenuous activists from the farm gates.
This year, the AAA, a meat-industry trade group, is looking at Millennials—how to understand them and how to market to them. The objective: “Crack the Millennial Code.” The opening day, judging by the video stream that’s up on YouTube, presented a different image of the stakeholders: These are people who run the ag industry from Washington, D.C., not the fields. The first panel, moderated by veteran lobbyist Chandler Keys, was about communicating with Millennial staffers on Capitol Hill.
But to the alliance’s credit, there appears to be less of a siege mentality this time around. Talk of transparency pervaded, with panels touching on the issue of antibiotics in livestock and including discussions on the meaning of sustainability—a subject that seems to lose a bit of its message the more it’s uttered. Jesse Schaffer, a George Washington University senior who spoke on one of the panels, echoed the sentiment. “For a lot of kids, sustainability doesn’t mean anything anymore. It’s been green-washed,” he said.
Other talks, such as a presentation from Millennial expert Jeff Fromm (who is not of that generation), included standard marketing peppered too liberally with the M-word. He had little to say about agriculture and about selling meat, in particular, to Millennials. It was all brand value, loyalty programs, and participative benefits. Fromm’s cultural touchstone, referenced halfway through his PowerPoint presentation, was Seinfeld. (Playing the Portlandia chicken sketch later on in the summit helped the event gain some ground.)
Not understanding how to talk to Millennials is a hallmark of nearly all events that purport to teach older people how to do so—not just because of outdated cultural references but because the marketers’ wet dream that this generation, my generation, is some monolithic, capitalistic machine that can be fed a feel-good line and proceeds to just buy, buy, buy is patently untrue. A number of speakers cited the generation’s diversity—in age, race, class—before lumping that diverse group under a series of all-encompassing trends. I guess this is our lot as the first generation to be defined and codified as a consumer group rather than a cultural milieu, à la Gen X (named by a novelist, Douglas Coupland, not some demographer).
But if you care more about agriculture than Millennial consumerism, some promising ideas did crop up in panels. The consensus seemed to be that engaging will require opening up the farm gates instead of fortifying them against activist hordes. The overwhelming sense from the various speakers and panelists is that they can make serious gains in the ongoing debate about American agriculture by showing more of what’s going on inside the farm, the slaughterhouse, and the biotech company. Everyone from a family dairy farmer in California to a Monsanto employee was talking about telling his or her story, about sharing—in the social media sense and otherwise—as the best way to engage with a consumer base that wants to know where its food comes from.
Whether or not they’ll like what they see on the inside remains to be seen.