Irish risk backlash over beef ad push

A secret report is sitting on the desk of Irish agriculture minister Joe Walsh. He is considering its contents, which may anger the British Government and the British beef industry.

The report has been prepared by the Irish Food Board, and examines how Irish beef exports can be marketed across Europe. It includes plans to launch a branding campaign in the UK later this year, which risks upsetting the British Government, under siege from farmers over its treatment of the BSE issue.

The 2m-4m campaign was expected to launch in April, though this is denied by the Irish Food Board, which says it never had any firm plans to launch such a campaign.

An Irish Food Board spokeswoman says: “The minister is looking at the proposals at the moment. He requested that we put together a strategy for marketing beef in the European Union and we submitted the proposals to the Department of Food & Agriculture two months ago. The minister hasn’t approved budgets yet.”

But Marketing Week can reveal that the plan to run the controversial campaign has been reinstated. the Irish Food Board has put out a tender to review its existing advertising and a decision is expected imminently. It is a statutory review, but the brief involves developing ideas for a UK branding campaign for beef. The subject is so sensitive, that the Irish Food Board’s head of marketing Shaun Quinn refuses to name which agencies are on the existing roster, although it is known that Saatchi & Saatchi in London is one.the Irish Food Board will not reveal the shortlist of agencies either, but it is understood to include incumbent Saatchi & Saatchi and a number of other London agencies working in conjunction with network offices in Dublin. The agencies have been asked to present ideas on how to advertise Irish beef in the UK in a “sensitive” way.

But some wonder whether this much-vaunted campaign will ever materialise, or is simply too hot to handle.

One agency source says: “It is a highly-charged political situation – the Irish Food Board is worried about upsetting the British Government and farmers. You can’t do a sensationalist campaign knocking British beef. You need to build positive brand values in a way that won’t worry people unduly.”

The ugly scenes accompanying farmers’ blockades of Irish beef imports and demonstrations at Tesco supply depots earlier this year are enough to make any marketer wary.

Such sensitivities could be behind the fact that Saatchi & Saatchi has held the account for more than two years yet has not created a single campaign during that time. But without a campaign, the Irish Food Board risks missing out on the marketing opportunities pre sented by a new EU directive which requires all beef to carry the label of origin.

Many supermarkets have been labelling the origin of their beef, some even trace the herd which the cow came from, in an attempt to maintain sales throughout the BSE scare. The whole issue has made people more aware of where their meat actually comes from.

The UK Meat & Livestock Commission is trying to repair the image of British beef by spending at least 10m a year on TV advertising through BMP DDB. It has introduced a number of quality control initiatives to rekindle consumer confidence. Sales in the UK are the only outlet for British beef farmers until the EU lifts the beef export ban.

MLC consumer marketing manager Chris Lamb says Irish beef will not pose much of a threat to sales of British beef in the UK even if the Irish Food Board does run an advertising campaign. “What are the brand values of Irish beef? I doubt any consumers would know. We have been putting a significant spend behind British beef for over 20 years – you can’t build a brand overnight.”

A spokesman from the office of Irish agriculture minister Joe Walsh admits that the MLC advertising onslaught is one of the reasons for not advertising Irish beef recently.

“While the British beef campaign is running, it would be more difficult to make a breakthrough,” he says.

Whichever advertising agency is appointed by the Irish Food Board, it will have a tough job ahead. The MLC has managed to turn crisis management through the BSE furore into a high-profile branding push. Funded by a levy on each slaughtered animal, the MLC is a cash rich organisation. At the height of the BSE crisis in 1996 it set up a strategy group with input from BMP and Sir Tim Bell’s PR agency, Lowe Bell.

Beef sales are creeping back up as the BSE scare dies down in the UK. Consumption of beef rose to 850,000 tonnes last year, after hitting a low of 739,000 the year before. But it has a long way to go to return to the 910,000 tonnes sold in 1993.

However, Irish beef sales in the UK have suffered even more. In 1993, 145,000 tonnes of Irish beef were sold in the UK, 16 per cent of the total. In 1996, Irish beef made up only eight per cent of the total, though by 1997 it was up to 11 per cent of the total, at 95,000 tonnes. So a powerful branding campaign appears essential to achieve better sales.

Political sensitivity is the other main issue for the winning advertising agency to overcome – any campaign promoting imported beef is likely to receive a hostile reception from British farmers who are anxious that imports will drive down the price of British beef even further. Farmers have conducted a long and loud battle to try to stop supermarkets taking consignments of Irish beef, with blockades and demonstrations outside relevant supply depots.

Beef consumption may be rising, but it is unlikely that previous levels of consumption will be reached, according to market research company Mintel.

People have tried alternatives to beef and changed their eating habits. This adds yet more pressure to any advertising from the Irish Food Board. Not only will it have to overcome the barrage of hostility from British beef farmers, it must also contend with a British public which has replaced its Sunday roasts with duck a l’orange or even nut cutlets.

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