Gilbert's Craft Sausages kale and chicken franks
Gilbert’s Craft Sausages wants to convey the quality of the product through the premium packaging.

Just as a dollar store or second-hand softcover book isn’t the same as a newly released hardcover coffee table book, not all meat products are presented in the same format. And just as people really do judge books by their covers, shoppers’ purchasing decisions are influenced by the package: Expectations for commodity ground beef in a Styrofoam tray with an overwrap are different, than say, a pricier package of a premium brand’s organic steak.

That same high standard for package integrity and appearance holds true for a variety of case-ready premium meat products, from value-added poultry to artisan sausages to gourmet pork chops and roasts, among other examples. Bottom line: If they’re paying more, consumers want to get more out of the product; simultaneously, if high-end meat and poultry brands want to convey quality and distinctiveness, they need to think both part and parcel.

Those who produce premium meats agree that the value proposition for their respective products includes all elements of package design, from materials to aesthetics.

“Packaging is extremely important. It has to convey the quality of the product within just a glance at the shelf,” says Chris G. Salm, founder of Gilbert’s Craft Sausages, based in Plymouth, Wis. “So, yes, I believe consumers’ expectations are higher for premium products because they tend to inherently understand by looking at our packaging that our product is something special.”

Lenny Lebovich, founder and CEO of Chicago-based PRE Brands LLC, agrees that consumers who browse the fresh meat case have a keen eye when it comes to premium offerings like the company’s 100 percent grass-fed steaks and ground beef.

“Packaging is the key touchpoint for consumers at the store. You can’t sell a premium product without a premium look. The packaging has to be elevated,” he remarks, pointing out that a premium meat package can be one of the highest price point items in the shopping cart.

Likewise, Jay Theiler, executive director of marketing for Agri Beef Co. in Boise, Idaho, underscores the importance of packaging in that company’s line of Wagyu beef and Kurobuto pork sold under the Snake River Farms brand. “When consumers buy our higher-end brands like Snake River Farms, they’re expecting a phenomenal experience,” he says.

Form and Function

PRE Brands vacuum-packed steaks
PRE Brands features vacuum packaging so consumers can easily see the premium product they are buying.

Inherent in the experience of buying a premium meat product is the assurance of quality and integrity.

For the PRE product line, that means the material and structure of the package is pivotal. “Our whole package is really driven by the consumer. The key things are safety first, quality and then other attributes,” Lebovich says.

To deliver safety and quality, Lebovich says the company went with a vacuum packaging format, which also fits the brand’s earth-friendly attributes. “We knew vacuum packaging was a high-quality packaging option. And we knew the consumer wanted to see more of the product, and this way, they could see all of it,” he points out, adding that shoppers who seek out premium items are generally open to learning more about the attributes of meats merchandised in vacuum packaging, including the difference in color.

Snake River Farms also chose package materials and structure based on its desire to provide the safest, highest-quality product to the end user, especially since its meats are available by mail order. “Functionally, it’s critical that our products are delivered to our consumers on time and in pristine frozen condition,” Theiler explains.

To ensure that functionality, Snake River Farms has made improvements to its packaging for home delivery. “The biggest has been the move from the use of gel ice packs to dry ice. This not only dramatically increases the quality of the product when it arrives, but it also leaves less waste for the consumer as the dry ice dissipates in transit,” Theiler explains. In addition, based on increasing numbers of consumers buying the steaks for gifts, the company has added special Snake River Farms gift boxes to its bundles, something it plans on expanding in 2016.

The structure of the Gilbert’s craft sausage package, meanwhile, literally fuses material and appearance because all products are cooked after they have been vacuum-sealed.

“This gives our products a fresher flavor due to a lack of oxidative byproducts, but it also gives us a great refrigerated shelf life without the use of inhibitors or artificial preservatives,” Salm says. “Secondly, our most unique packaging aspect is our individually wrapped links. Instead of opening an entire package of sausage and worrying about eating the whole thing within a couple days or freezing the leftovers, our consumers only open what they want to eat. This cuts down on food waste, and also adds an element of portability to our sausages.”

The Eyes Have It

Snake River Farms steak flight
“When consumers buy our higher-end brands like Snake River Farms, they’re expecting a phenomenal experience,” says Jay Theiler, Agri Beef Co.

The face of the package goes hand in hand with functionality for premium products, again because of the users’ high expectation, say those who provide such products.

Because of the nature of PRE beef, Lebovich says the label has to convey what makes the product unique. “Consumers are also paying for the special benefits of the product and we put those on the package, including a reduction in fat calories, other nutrition you’re getting from this beef like higher Omega-3’s and CLA’s (conjugated linoleic acid) and no added hormones or antibiotics. We quantify all of that,” he says, adding that the back of the package tells the story about the brand and the philosophy behind it.

At Snake River Farms, on-package information includes product attributes as well as preparation instructions. “It’s critical that we provide preparation instructions in the box to ensure the consumer that they’re fully capable of maximizing these products,” Theiler remarks.

Of course, eye appeal is also intrinsic to the merchandising and sale of the premium meat or poultry products.

“In terms of wow factor, we view our ‘out of box’ experience as yet another opportunity to represent our brand and help our customers understand the quality of the product they’ve received,” Theiler adds.

That’s true on the foodservice side of its business as well, he adds. “It is a high-quality, premium-oriented box that signifies the quality and consistency of the product inside – basically, it is our ‘calling card’ in the back of the house for chefs and restaurant staff and it has to represent our high values.”

The billboard effect of premium packaging is underscored by Salm. “As a growing gourmet sausage company, we don’t have a huge advertising budget to educate consumers about our products, so for us packaging is advertising. It has to convey the quality of the product within just a glance at the shelf,” he declares.

To that end, Gilbert’s enlists feedback on the design during the process. “We mostly use common sense about where to place the most prominent callouts, and we also try to get fresh eyes on everything since it’s impossible for us to look at these things totally objectively anymore. Something that might seem obvious to us after staring at it for years might not be obvious to shoppers at a glance,” Salm notes.

Finally, some processors continue the premium package design into the retail space where the product is being merchandised. “We provide category management to retailers – we provide displays that are married to our unique package and we advise on where to place them,” reports Lebovich, who circles back to the similar marriage of product and package. “At the end of the day, packaging gets a sale once – a great product makes a sale over and over.”

That sentiment is shared by Salm and his Gilbert’s line of products. “A bad sausage in cool packaging is almost like putting lipstick on a pig. So for us, everything has to come down to quality and flavor,” he says.