Can generic ads spread the word?

The decision to scrap the Butter Council signals the end of its generic ad campaign. Is this a short-sighted aberration or does it prove that industry-wide initiatives simply don’t work?

The demise of the Butter Council (MW last week) raises some crucial questions about generic advertising, and the ability of marketing campaigns to alter public perceptions.

The Council believes it is a victim of tight-fisted farmers and milk producers in Britain who decided last year not to fund generic ad campaigns for milk or butter.

But it is only the latest victim of the short-sightedness which has undermined many other industry’s generic campaign in the past. The pressure of inter-producer conflict has often proved too much for the minimal, fragile unity underpinning such a campaign.

The Butter Council’s budget of up to 2.5m a year was previously funded by the Milk Marketing Board along with producers from exporting countries such as New Zealand, Denmark and France. But when the MMB was dissolved, the Butter Council’s funding went with it.

The 0.04p per litre the producers give to their trade body, the Milk Development Council, is to be spent on research and collecting statistics. But not a penny will go on advertising.

The Butter Council has called this a “crazy” decision, and cites the effectiveness of its knocking campaign against margarine as evidence that butter needs a body to fight its corner.

The Council’s advertising agency, EURO RSCG Wnek Gosper, says the decision is a “massive own-goal by the British dairy industry”. But director Stephen Wheatley believes

the move to withdraw funding from the Butter Council is more to do with free market ideology than simple penny-pinching by farmers.

He says: “It is down to the notion that generic campaigns fly in the face of free market values; that the presence of generic activity has stifled brand innovation. This is nonsense – there is synergy between the two.”

Wheatley believes generic campaigns can address issues which brand campaigns have not the time or space to look at.

But not all the butter producers seem unduly worried about the end of the Butter Council, or that its demise will have a negative effect on butter sales. MD Foods, the UK arm of the Danish dairy producers, says butter has a good future as consumers turn to natural products and away from manufactured ones.

A spokesman says: “The Butter Council has performed a useful function, but its demise

won’t weaken the position of butter – we may see more branded advertising.”

Anchor Foods, by contrast, believes butter sales could fall after the Council is abolished. Chairman Edmond Verschueren says: “It will have a negative effect on sales.” Anchor has three or four months to consider its position, according to Verschueren, and this could include some kind of generic campaign that picks up where the Butter Council leaves off.

The Council has been running a campaign promoting the health benefits of butter which it claims has been particularly successful since its launch last autumn.

It sought to rubbish margarine’s position as the healthy alternative to butter, and used research from bodies in the US and UK.

It claims its ad campaign has caused a seven per cent fall in sales of margarines and spreads, while boosting butter sales by three per cent. But like all advertising campaigns, other factors have been at work unconnected with the efforts of ad agencies.

Van den Bergh Foods, which makes margarines and spreads such as Flora and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, is quick to condemn the Butter Council’s claims of sales gains on the back of its ad campaign. Marketing controller for yellow fats Andy Duncan attributes the rise in butter sales between October last year and April 1995 to a fall in the wholesale price of butter.

Since butter prices have started creeping up, says Duncan, butter sales have fallen. But the Butter Council’s supporters claim the rise in sales was greater than would be expected from the fall in price.

More importantly, the campaign was aimed at changing public awareness rather than directly increasing sales. After the launch of the “knocking” ads last autumn, the Butter Council’s director, David Roberts, found he was being asked to appear on radio programmes and TV.

Press coverage “worth several million pounds” brought to the public’s attention that it was no longer wrong or sinful to eat butter.

The argument on the effectiveness of the generic campaign for butter is muddied by other contributing factors, but the question still remains as to whether generic campaigns are worth the money spent on them.

If the Butter Council’s work did lift sales in the way it claims, then its 500,000 ad campaign was worth every penny. But by its own admission, increasing sales was not its primary aim – it was part of a much longer term strategy to change public perceptions.

That ambition could now be the ultimate cost of the abolition of the Butter Council.

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