For years—decades, actually—meat companies struggled with branding commodities such as ground beef or pork chops. Typically, shoppers seeking those products got to paw through a big coffin case jammed with generic, store-labeled packages that may or may not have been leaking some bloody fluids from beneath the foam tray.

Now at least there are some house branded and national branded product lines available in more robust packages, often pre-labeled, case-ready and value-added through additional portioning and processing.

That’s a huge step forward from a merchandising standpoint, but what’s often missing is optimal use of packaging to tell a story about the people and places that produce the meat products. Granted, there’s a lot less real estate available on a package of round steaks than say, a carton of milk, but what the majority of dairies these days are doing to connect consumers with their farmer-producers is an object lesson worth learning.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, Horizon Organic has seized a significant share of the market and enjoys serious shelf space in many of the major retail chains in the region, in large measure the result of savvy positioning and credible execution of its messaging—not to mention consistent quality and competitive pricing, of course.

Central to the dairy’s marketing thrust is the typical “organic is healthier for all of us” advertising rhetoric—milk produced without antibiotics, pesticides, hormones or cloning, etc., etc. Such “better than” positioning, unfortunately, has been embraced by virtually the entire organic food industry, and Horizon has certainly selected a seat on that bandwagon, especially in its web and online communications.

Speaking of online marketing, though, I have to laugh at the ridiculous trend that is seemingly universal among visual designers these days: No matter what the product or service, customers are greeted with stock photos of ultra-happy families showcasing their oh-so upscale lifestyles. From product catalogs to website pages to advertising imagery, these glam-fam shots always depict a stress-free scene with smiles all around, every professional model in the photo bursting with the kind of delight that you and I might experience—maybe—for about five minutes on Christmas morning once a year.

In Horizon’s case, their home page features a dinnertime scenario with daddy making the meal—while holding an adorable infant—(right), with big sister playing with crayons (at age eight? Are you kidding me?) and mommy happily working at a nearby counter on her laptop. There’s not one element of that situation that remotely rings true.

You ever tried to make dinner—from scratch—while holding a baby? It’s like trying to drive through a strange city while talking on a cellphone and fiddling with your GPS. In other words, a disaster waiting to happen. In real families, you’re lucky if you get a majority of the household to show up for the actual meal, much less participate in its preparation.

People power

But those ad agency fantasies aside, Horizon’s marketing does manage to do two things right, and they’re valuable tactics for all food marketers.

First, both the company’s product packaging and supplemental online resources stress the fact that its milk products contain added DHA omega-3 fats. DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is a polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acid that is a major structural component of brain and eye tissue and is sourced not from declining fish stocks but from algae, with allows the company to tout the ingredient as both sustainable and vegetarian.

Truth is, omega-3s are a critical nutrient, one that preschool kids rarely consume, since its primary natural sources are fatty fish and organ meats. Offering parents an alternative source in an everyday staple like milk is a powerful health message.

Second, there is a genuine farm family featured on carton, with further profiles available online. The copy is tight, the imagery seems right and the stories are poignant and plausible.

In fact, the irony is that the photos of the actual dairy farm families would be vastly better images to use than the phony studio shots that populate the boutique and department store catalogs crammed into people’s mailboxes during the holidays.

Families that work hard, who are committed to their profession as animal caretakers and food producers and who serve as stewards of our most precious resources of soil, water and energy: That’s a pretty powerful position from which to leverage a company’s chosen market segment.

It’s a place all food producers ought to consider residing.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.