Wagyu: Beefy Branding?

Restaurant menus provide me with great entertainment. First, there are the overly florid descriptions, “Isle of Gigha halibut plucked today from Neptune’s briny depths and glazed with hints of Aegean seaweed while paired with citrus-infused Atlantic King crab balanced delicately by herbal-honeyed cauliflower couscous, index finger lime, and accented by a buttery and woody ras el hanout infused broth.”

All joking aside, given I penned that pretentious menu item, it does pay to have dishes sound more enticing. Guests, on average, spend about 109 seconds with a menu. Item descriptions trigger 45% of buying decisions for a specific dish and well-written descriptions can increase sales up to 30%. Another consideration, 80% of a restaurant’s food sales come from 16% of menu items.

The second reason menus entertain are my hunt for typos. Being a marketer and a writer, I am programmed to spot these but never do so to shame. When it is so egregious, forcing me to bring it up, the restaurant has been already well aware but do not want to eat the cost of a reprint (blame the printers!). Such errors show humanity, so often this can be endearing. After all, you may spot syntax and grammar no-no’s in this piece (like using the hyphenated expression, no-no).

A third reason is menu layout and design. Studies call for just 7 items per page, so customers absorb and focus. Generally accepted thinking is to ditch dollar signs and round up or down to even numbers. Forget that $6.95 way of thinking and make it 7. Restaurants have assumed that customers are drawn to the upper righthand corner of menus, so place higher profit items there. Newer research suggests customers read menus like a book, starting in the top left corner.

I am getting sidetracked. This is, after all, a piece on Wagyu beef. Let me get to it. I live in a resort community in Quebec. One local restaurant specializes in meaty things. The duck and lamb items are woefully outnumbered by beef. I was drawn to a specific steak on offer. No long description here, it plainly states, Japanese A5 Wagyu 6 Ounce Filet Mignon. The price, a mere, $224 (all $ in Canadian unless otherwise noted).

Let’s put that into perspective. Six ounces of Beluga Caviar will set you back $2,250. If you brave the aisles of Costco, $224 will buy you 192 boxes of Super-Size Kraft Dinner Original (each box contains 50% more than regular size!).

At the restaurant, they offer an alternative. On the menu, is a 6-ounce 100% Quebec Wagyu filet mignon, for the bargain price of $102. I will explain the price difference shortly but in the interest of sound research and reporting, I must share that all side dishes are extra. You may get a sprig of parsley but don’t expect anything else.

So, picture yourself sitting at the restaurant with a starched napkin on your lap. A plate arrives with your six ounces of A5 Japanese wagyu. By the way, the meat patty in a Whopper is 4 ounces and a Quarter Pounder is slightly more. Meanwhile, your meat looks lonely on the large white plate. If you are like me, you begin to think, “For this amount of money, I could buy 50 Whoppers or 10 buckets of KFC.”

There is a purported reason for the mortgage-size dinner. As Robb Report wrote last year, “Lately wagyu beef — you know, the transcendently tender, fatty, umami-rich steak — has become as synonymous with luxury as caviar or black truffles.”

There is incredible prestige associated with wagyu and the premium price it fetches only adds to the brand mystique. Few people know that there is a huge range of quality in wagyu beef. Purveyors may sell it, but it doesn’t mean it is the luxury version. Just attaching the name, can add a digit to the meal price. That is contributing to a growing skepticism that this is one big beefy marketing gimmick.

Wagyu means Japanese cow and it’s pronounced wah-gyoo, not wah-goo. It is not an umbrella term for every Japanese cow. The luxury version has special genetic qualities. With wagyu, the cow metabolizes the fat internally, so it’s integrated within the muscle, giving it a distinctness that has morphed into its unique selling proposition. The result is a rich, luscious taste. The meat practically dissolves once it hits your tongue.

Japanese cattle-breeders go to great lengths to give their cows a zen-like existence. Unlike the factory conditions of North American cattle, cows in Japan are pampered. That is because producers want to achieve an A4 or A5 rating, with A5 representing the most premium level of wagyu. That explains the difference on my local restaurant’s menu between A5 Japanese wagyu and locally raised Quebec wagyu.

You may be saying to yourself, “What about the kobe stuff?” Kobe is used interchangeably with wagyu. That is because kobe is essentially a brand of wagyu beef, in the same way that Nike is a shoe brand. Kobe beef has to originate in Kobe, Japan. Robb Reports explains, “All parties who have a hand in getting this sought-after meat to your table — from the farm to the slaughterhouse to the buyer to the restaurant — has to be licensed by The Kobe Beef Association.”

All that can happen, but the meat has to be rated A4 or A5, if it’s an A3, then it isn’t Kobe. If you see the words “American kobe” on a menu, order a clubhouse sandwich because American kobe doesn’t exist. Think of it this way, champagne is from Champagne, kobe is from Kobe.

Back to wagyu. Japanese wagyu is purebred, American wagyu is crossbred often with Angus (a breed that once was top of the heap). This explains why 6-ounces of Japanese wagyu is a substantial meal. No restaurant will ever have a wagyu eating contest. It fills you up. Just try it, to find out.

You can put back more of the American variety because it isn’t as fatty and rich. American wagyu has the familiar beefy flavor of a traditional steak. The Japanese has an amazing sweetness stemming from its umami flavor. Umami is one of the five basic tastes, alongside sweet, bitter, salty, and sour. It was discovered over a century ago and is best described as a savory. The word “umami” is Japanese and means “a pleasant savory taste.”

It is the reason Manhattan’s Del Frisco restaurant charges US$91.00 for just 3-ounces of Japanese A5 Wagyu or US$182.00 for 6-ounces (CDN$233.00). That means my local restaurant is a whopping $9.00 cheaper. If you buy into the whole wagyu thing, that just may be a deal too good to pass up.

Business, Brand & Writing Strategies. Former CMO at Interbrand, Chief Communications Officer at DDB Worldwide, Principal Consultant at Price Waterhouse.

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