How is the nation's second-largest turkey producer building its brand for the next generation of Thanksgiving chefs?

With a TikTok dance, of course.

"We have great celebrities in the influencer space helping to launch it," said Nicole Behne, vice president of marketing for Minnesota-based Jennie-O Turkey Store, which is owned by Hormel Foods. "We want to provide something fun, hip, with lots of great energy — something a little different to create a new family tradition by doing the Jennie-O turkey dance."

Jennie-O, and turkey in general, should be a hot commodity right now, and not just because it's almost Thanksgiving. It's a lean, relatively inexpensive protein in a protein-obsessed market. It's a sandwich meat, a feast centerpiece and offers red meat alternatives for bacon and ground meat.

Turkey consumption has more than doubled since 1970, but Americans have been eating less turkey in recent years and are expected to eat a pound less per person in 2021 than they did in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"All these producers have been trying to emphasize brands and all sorts of uses for their products," said University of Minnesota marketing professor George John. "But as we say in class, there's no way to account for taste."

Even with supply chain concerns and cost increases, "I don't think the inflation story or supply shortages are going to play a role here," he said. "It's taste preferences."

Jennie-O is one of the most recognizable names in turkey and in 2020 processed 1.2 billion pounds, just behind Butterball, according to WATT PoultryUSA.

But the brand has less than 10% household penetration, a measure of American homes with Jennie-O products in them.

"There's so much more that consumers don't know about ground turkey, not to mention the vibrant brand that we've built over time," Steve Lykken, president of Hormel's Jennie-O unit, said in an investor presentation in October. "It has the opportunity to continue to grow."

To reach that growth, Jennie-O is focusing on being "unapologetically turkey" — getting folks comfortable cooking turkey in all its forms and calling a turkey burger, simply, a burger.

"This is our time, this is our season," Behne said. "But our sales in ground turkey are consistent around the year. We've got a solution for every part of the year for consumers."

Beyond Turkey Day

Last year Jennie-O became the first turkey company to sponsor the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and it will roll out the green-and-gold float again next week.

"We have 200 pounds of glitter on this float," Behne said. "We're ecstatic to be partnering with Macy's again."

The National Turkey Federation estimates Americans eat about 46 million turkeys on Thanksgiving. That's as many birds as Minnesota, the nation's top turkey grower, produces in a year.

Supply chain snags have driven up costs this year, according to USDA data, and stocks of smaller birds could be limited.

"Right now there are a lot of rumors floating around that there's going to be a turkey shortage, but every farmer I've talked to is not concerned about a shortage," said Hannah Halldorson, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association. "Smaller turkeys, 16 pounds or less, will probably go quicker. If you have an idea of exactly how big a turkey you want, we recommend buying now."

Hormel CEO Jim Snee also brushed off supply concerns during a virtual conference this week: "There are enough Jennie-O turkeys, though we always encourage our customers to buy early and often."

While the holidays provide a yearly boost to every turkey company and the state's growers, Lykken said ground turkey is the "crown jewel" of Jennie-O and has been seeing rapid growth.

That comes as whole bird sales continue to decline across the poultry industry.

"U.S. families have been getting smaller for years. Smaller families are less likely to buy big cuts of meat. Sales of whole birds, for both chickens and turkeys, have been in decline for decades," Terrence O'Keefe, content director for WATT Global Media, wrote in an e-mail. "Turkey companies have countered this trend with increased offerings of product like turkey deli meats, ground turkey, sausage and parts."

Jennie-O launched a "Make the Switch" campaign more than a decade ago "to see turkey in a different light, turkey as an alternative for ground beef in tacos, turkey as an alternative for ground beef in other basic recipes," Lykken said.

Sales jumped in the years that followed. Lately, though, Jennie-O sales overall have been flat. Behne said the brand has been working with lifestyle experts like Ereka Vetrini to promote "easy weekday meals with Jennie-O" on TV stations around the country as it keeps turkey in the spotlight beyond its big day.

"Thanksgiving is great for us, but we see a spike in January," Behne said, as New Year's resolutions increase appetites for lean proteins. "Consumers have told us through our market research they see ground turkey as a great protein option for weeknight meals."

Lykken said Jennie-O is shifting from education to "inspiration" as it pivots its marketing — which could include some new packaging in meat cases next year.

"As we research with customers, we found all kinds of different ways to inspire them differently on the front and the back of the package," Lykken said. "So you'll see a fresh new look in the store."

Community impact

Growing turkey sales has big implications for the Minnesota communities that raise and process the birds.

Jennie-O is the largest employer in Willmar, where its operations are based, with about 1,700 employees in Kandiyohi County.

Willmar's population grew by more than 1,400 people, a 7% increase, over the past decade even as much of rural Minnesota saw declines — and much of Willmar's growth came from new nonwhite residents.

Jennie-O, and agriculture in general, are fueling the county's growing diversity, said Sarah Swedburg, business development manager for the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.

This is helpful, she said, especially as she sees other regions struggle with worker shortages.

Aaron Backman, executive director of the area's Economic Development Commission, said there are more than 90 businesses owned by people of color, a number that has grown rapidly in recent years.

"The poultry industry has also carried over into redevelopment here," he said. "We've made good strides, and we remain a strong agricultural community as well."