Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably noticed bacon is everywhere. An increasingly trendy food item, permeating popular culture and rendering the humble breakfast meat a de facto cultural icon for millennials. Today, two out of three American restaurants include bacon as an item on their menu — not only in traditional uses but in everything from baked goods to cocktails. Of course, things weren’t always this way. For decades, health enthusiasts maligned bacon as an unnecessary risk to the daily diet. Bacon experiences this current popularity through efforts engineered by those with a major financial stake in its success.
Unsurprisingly, the U.S.’s current appetite for bacon results from media campaigns serving a very interesting case study in consumer public relations. Unlike so many successful image-changing ventures, the bacon public relations campaign wasn’t dreamt up in a coastal city or by slick branding experts. It came from the heart of America’s farmland, the result of farmers and industry executives knowing a few key changes allowing them to exploit bacon’s sheer tastiness and affordability. Now, those elevating bacon to cult status laugh all the way to the bank.
For a long time, bacon primarily sold as a retail item: only twenty percent of total bacon sales came from service industry purchases. Always considered a low-brow, unhealthy food product, the 1980’s health craze forbade the diet-obsessed from consuming all but low or no-fat foods, further damaging its reputation. During this time, the meat industry ramped up its provision of boneless, skinless chicken. Stephen Gerike, director of foodservice marketing for the National Pork Board, notes, “pork took a real beating during that period of time.”
Geike’s rebranding of pork as “the other white meat” became instrumental. As demand for low-fat meat products soared, bacon suffered. In the 1980’s, pork belly prices dropped so low meatpackers started to sell them as a cheap export to the Soviet Union. As warehouse freezers filled up with unsellable pork products (keep in mind that the belly is the largest part of the pig), farmers used drastic measures such as breeding leaner pigs to create meat products with higher value.
But, all changed one day in the early 1990s, as a handful of Pork Board marketers worked with the service industry garnering bacon a good name among restaurateurs. Branding it as a “flavor enhancer,” and pitching the item at national fast-food restaurants chains across the USA. After years of hawking flavorless, low-fat hamburgers at their outlets, chefs, and restaurant owners responded enthusiastically: bacon’s low cost allowed bacon burgers to sell at a premium, and customers loved them. Hardee’s first chain adopted bacon on its burgers, but Burger King, Wendy’s, and McDonald’s quickly followed suit.
Culinary chefs became curious and tried bacon too, with great effect.. Proving its popularity by 2006, the cost of pork bellies rose to nearly a dollar, a drastic difference from its 1989 price of 30 cents. Though the beginning of the fad resulted almost entirely in its adoption by hamburger chains, high-end restaurants took note and began experimenting with it as an exotic addition to their typical fare.
Of course, its place on the plates of epicures began, and Internet users showed their appreciation for it via the proliferation of viral memes declaring their fidelity to the once-lowly meat. Other markets cashed in, leading to the generation of such odd products as bacon ice cream sundaes and bacon body products. With each new variation on the bacon theme, the price of pork belly futures rose.
Those watching the trend believe it’s more than a mere fad: grocery industry website marketresearch.com notes sales growth at 10% a year, despite frequent speculation about peaking. Even as sales level out, as they inevitably must, it’s hard to imagine them dipping so low again. Not only a win for the pork industry (not to mention bacon lovers everywhere), communications professionals claim victory as well. Their stroke of creative thought and open-mindedness led to a dietary revolution. Now there’s food for thought!