Skip to main content

From Hot Dogs to Heavy Industry: The Power of Public Perception

12 min read2024-06-26Grant Hendricks

In the United States, it’s another big election year. It has me thinking about gaffes. Remember gaffes? Remember when politicians could do something incredibly stupid, and it would, ya know, end their careers?

I remember Howard Dean in 2004 and his infamous “Dean Scream.

From binders full of women to baskets of deplorables, sometimes all it takes to lose an election is a stupid turn of phrase. It’s perception in action. Even if it’s meaningless in the grander scheme of things, a gaffe can infect a candidate with negative public perceptions, dooming them to irrelevancy.

How the sausage gets made

Consider the humble hot dog.

The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council (because, of course, that’s a thing) maintains a glossary of hot dog ingredients on its website. Many people love the taste of a good dog, but we’re all pretty aware of the fact that they’re gross.

Lips and assholes, they say. That’s what’s in your hot dog. The NHDSC begs to differ. It describes the types of meat used quite clearly. For beef dogs, it claims that the meat used is “most commonly pieces of meat cut away from steaks or roasts.” It clarifies that “organ meats are not typically used in hot dogs or sausages, and if organs are used, the specific organ will be included in the ingredients statement.”

Looking into it some more, I see that it is indeed true. Most hot dogs aren’t made from lips or assholes or anything else grotesque. At least, nothing more grotesque than trimmings from an animal carcass.

You know what is made from lips and assholes? Chorizo sausage.

Ok, maybe not assholes. But traditional chorizo is made from lymph nodes, salivary glands, and pieces of pig head. You can look it up. Or don’t; just check the ingredients list on this package:

The intention here is not to make you eat more hot dogs, nor is it to stop you from eating chorizo tacos. It’s an exercise in branding—in perception. Hot dogs have a reputation for cheapness and low quality. Chorizo is seen as something gourmet. So hot dogs get the old lip/asshole treatment, while we turn a blind eye to chorizo.

If this section was a bit much, here’s a palate cleanser. A photo of former U.S. presidential candidate Rick Perry getting frisky with a corn dog:

Howard Dean gets lampooned for getting a little too enthusiastic during a speech, but year after year we not only permit but encourage presidential candidates get intimate with corn dogs. Make it make sense.

Anyway, let’s get back to it.

Isn’t it offal? Rebranding “gross” meat products

Particularly in our sanitary (and sanitized) western world, there aren’t that many die-hard fans of organ meat. Elsewhere in the world, palates lean a bit more adventuresome. But North Americans are a squeamish sort. We like our chops, our steaks, our chicken wings. Hearts, feet, gizzards? That’s dog food, right?

Over the past decade, some epicureans have tried to challenge that perception. There’s a bit of a culinary resurgence focused on the overlooked cuts, the organs, the offal. The so-called “snout to tail” movement advocates for processing and enjoying the entire animal.

It’s presented as a boon across several dimensions that speak to different concerns among consumers:

  • Efficiency. For those who bemoan the horrific resource inefficiencies of meat production, it makes good sense to maximize the value we get from each harvested animal.
  • Flavour. Those with adventurous culinary leanings may appreciate the novelty of “exotic” cuts.
  • Nutrition and health fads. It’s been said that there’s a sucker born every minute. On a probably unrelated note, there seems to be a new health fad born every minute. Some of those fads rely on unconventional sources of nutrition like I dunno, liver.

In the end, “snout to tail” reframes a disgusting product like organ meat and connective tissue and makes it…I was going to say sexy, but that’s just wrong. Palatable. Let’s say palatable.

It elevates lips and assholes beyond their station. Hot dogs continue to catch strays for a crime they aren’t even guilty of, while the same hipsters that dismiss them line up at butcher shops to get their hands on fresh lamb brains.

Coffee breaks and Kleenex: context and messaging matter

If you’re reading this, there’s a fair chance you’re doing it on your coffee break.

If you were a time traveller from 1940 reading the previous line, you might ask yourself (among many other questions), “What is a coffee break?”

Workers have always had breaks in their day, but the notion of a coffee break is inorganic. Before the 1950s, Americans perceived coffee as a treat to accompany a meal. You had a cup of coffee for breakfast. Maybe a pick-me-up with supper if you were so inclined.

A concerted effort by the Pan-American Coffee Bureau in the early 1950s created the coffee break. Citing improved productivity and worker happiness, they ran a $2 million ad campaign to encourage workplaces to adopt a coffee break. Coffee’s popularity exploded as a result. To this day, it’s found in break rooms and offices around the world.

Kleenex was initially sold in the 1920s as a product for removing cold cream and makeup. Over the next decade, Kleenex manufacturer Kimberly-Clark realized that consumers preferred using Kleenex as a disposable handkerchief. They rebuilt their brand around this concept, and the rest is history. A moderately popular cold cream remover became the broadly accepted colloquial term for an entire category of products.

In the case of both coffee and Kleenex, the product itself didn’t change. The message did.

Are you in an ugly industry?

No matter what you do, there’s someone out there who hates you for it.

Chemical? Check. Manufacturing? Yep. Mining? Affirmative.

What it comes down to is that everyone wants to drive their car over to paradise, but they get angry when we put up parking lots. It’s having your cake and eating it, too. All sunshine, no rain.

The harsh reality is that an ugly industry allows for the existence of clean industries. The powerful magnets used in renewable energy turbines rely on minerals like dysprosium. There is no replacement for it; it’s not terribly abundant, and mining it is rather dirty. But if we want to “electrify America,” as many people do, we have to keep mining it. Those open pit mines and leaching pools that environmentalists so despise are absolute necessities for their brighter, greener future.

That doesn’t mean dirty industries cannot do better, but there are limits. A mine is a deep chasm carved into the earth. That’s simply how it has to be. No amount of legislation, commitment to environmental standards, or corporate social responsibility policy will make mining clean and green.

The unique challenge of marketing in the industrial sector

The further removed people are from something, the less consideration they give it and the less they tend to understand it. Industrial processes are out of sight and out of mind for the majority of people. Not without reason: the industry is indeed polluting. It can be disruptive to local communities. In some cases, it can be dangerous.

None of this takes away from its necessity. Lack of visibility of industry is part of the broader context of marketing primary and industrial sector goods and services.

Fundamentally, marketing for industry deals with three major challenges:

  1. Small addressable markets. There’s great benefit in gaining traction with the general public (more on that later), but most industrial businesses have a niche, highly specialized target market. Contrast that with typical B2C goods and services. Everyone needs shoes or pants. Only a select few need industrial chemical blending services by comparison.
  2. Commoditization and industry consolidation. Many industrial companies operate in a highly commodified, highly consolidated vertical. Chemical suppliers compete against Dow and DuPont to sell products with tight margins and difficult-to-parse unique selling propositions—if there are any. Other industries like oil and gas and mining deal with commodities quite literally. There’s no way to sell premium copper by the ton or bespoke barrels of crude.
  3. Negative reputation and social/political opposition. Industrial companies rarely get spotlighted in a positive way. Visibility in the primary and manufacturing sectors often centres around protests, job losses, strike action, environmental impact, and other negative stories. Generally, negative perceptions toward industry can result in onerous regulatory environments, smaller hiring pools, and even workplace disruption due to politically motivated protests or acts of sabotage.

It should be made clear that there’s a big difference between advocating for a fair regulatory environment and free market absolutism. Industrial companies that operate in bad faith, lie to and mislead the public, or hide their environmental impact contribute to the negative perceptions that affect industry at large. Honesty and transparency are pillars of ethical marketing. Companies that make a good-faith effort to meet or exceed social and environmental best practices can actually help their industry avoid sledgehammer legislation that eats into profitability.

Messaging: your secret weapon in B2B industrial marketing

When the products are commodities, the directly addressable market size is small, and the marketing landscape is tilted against you, what’s left for industrial companies to grow their influence?

In many cases, the answer is messaging. Even in commodified industries, someone wins public bids, gets first dibs on mineral rights, or gets their new facility fast-tracked for development. Sure, that’s a lot of personal network at play. Growing and leveraging that network will always matter. But there’s more to every deal than just who you know.

B2B deals, particularly those with a public component, get approved by committee. Everyone knows that things done by committee are always great and more than the sum of their parts, but I digress.

You might have an in with the primary decision-maker, or you might not. It’s unlikely you have a personal connection to everyone involved in a complex B2B deal. It’s also probable that effective strategies like gift-giving are regulated in your industry, either by government or by corporate policy. This is where your marketing steps up to help grease the wheels.

In B2B marketing, the pitch never stops. Your message continues to work for you after the proposal is submitted for review. Messaging is how you show your customers who you are and why they should choose you over your competitor.

Consider the three major challenges faced by many in the industrial sector:

  • You may deal in a commodified market. You can compete on price, but is that the best idea? It’s a race to the bottom, sacrificing margin to close deals. Companies run themselves out of business chasing competitive pricing. Isn’t it better to compete on, well, anything else?
  • Your market size is small, which also makes it distinct. With a solid understanding of target market characteristics, you know what they value and how to communicate those values back to them.
  • Many industrial business deals hinge on political support across one or more levels of government. This creates a broad audience of tertiary stakeholders—voters, local residents, politicians, and city staff—that can either be friends or foes, depending on what they believe about your project.

Sales teams are a critical component of communicating the message, but they’re targeted to your prospects. A salesperson can’t pitch to every stakeholder at once, especially if we consider broader political support and all the tertiary stakeholders involved in political processes. It’s your marketing material, your messaging, your brand experience that can influence a broad range of stakeholders. In a more limited marketing environment, these elements matter more, not less.

Change your fortunes by changing perceptions.

Perception management in industry gets a bad rep. Dishonest messaging results in accusations of greenwashing and propaganda. These criticisms actually highlight the effectiveness of perception management via brand and messaging. Such tactics would not be derided as they are if they weren’t effective. There’s no need to lie or deceive to receive benefits from messaging-based marketing, either. As we’ve discussed, industrial goods and services are absolutely necessary. Whether it occurs in our communities or gets offshored to the developing world, we rely on heavy industry and manufacturing to live our modern lives.

It’s all about selecting the right angles. Building a new pulp mill might result in a serious and unavoidable increase in local air and water pollution. What if it adds a hundred well-paying, stable jobs to a struggling small town? Calculate the broader impact of that job creation—all the money that flows into that local economy, in turn creating more jobs in unrelated industries, improving tax revenue for the municipality, and potentially funding a community revitalization.

Selling heavy equipment with high carbon emissions may run counter to decarbonizing the economy, but what if that heavy equipment gets used to protect communities from floods and wildfires? Tell that story. Make it human and relatable.

Industrial marketing is the discipline of finding silver linings in every cloud. Industry is at a disadvantage in the messaging battle; its benefits are underappreciated, and its necessity is misunderstood. Many of your competitors don’t care.

That’s why you should.

Signup Successful!

Thanks for signing up for the BlackBean newsletter!

Let’s optimize your marketing and turn it into a powerful growth tool!

Get Started Today

Save Your Marketing!

Is your marketing lying on the ground, gasping for air? Don't worry, we're the CPR it needs! With our expertise, we'll breathe new life into your strategy. Ready to give your marketing a lifeline? Reach out to us today!

Revive Your Marketing