If ever Britain’s food producers needed a boost it is now – but some believe agriculture minister Nick Brown’s pledge to spend an extra &£5m on promoting British livestock is little more than an ill thought-out PR gesture.
Brown made his cash promise, along with a &£10m boost for organic farming, as the war on British beef in Europe was reaching its peak last week. It came just weeks after he told farmers there would be no more cash for marketing until at least 2001.
Suspicions that this was policy making on the hoof were confirmed by a Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food (MAFF) spokesman, who told Marketing Week: “Nobody was consulted on this plan. Brown and Tony Blair simply had a chat and we ended up with &£15m for British agriculture.”
The duo, under pressure from a Tory press which was baying for a trade war with France over its refusal to allow imports of British beef, needed a quick headline. By proclaiming a pro-British food ad campaign, Blair may believe he can show his patriotic credentials. This would be an effective counter move against Conservative leader William Hague’s accusation of a Britain “controlled by Europe.” So up popped the cash injection, taking many in the industry by surprise.
Certainly, no one was more surprised by Brown and Blair’s little chat than the National Farmers Union (NFU), which has spent the last six months planning its own marketing campaign, the message of which, ironically, is that there is only room in the consumer’s mind for a single “Buy British” initiative.
The debacle which followed – as the NFU demanded talks with MAFF to work out a joint strategy – was all too familiar to industry observers, but raised a few eyebrows in marketing and advertising circles.
Chris Powell, chairman of advertising agency BMP DDB and a veteran of branding Britain initiatives, says: “In marketing, the worst thing you can do is confuse people with a multitude of logos and messages. It has to be as simple and direct as possible.
“If the NFU is designing a logo to go on British food it will be yet another complication. You need to simplify things. It is a pity they cannot subscribe to a centralised initiative.
“MAFF presumably knows the NFU’s phone number. It seems extraordinary that two organisations that must be in daily contact can’t get together to work out a joint initiative. It is a very British mess.”
NFU PR manager Simon Rayner, who is heading its campaign, was keen to play down any conflict with MAFF. He says: “It is not like MAFF has been keeping us in the dark, but its announcement only came a week ago. The time has not been available in the diary to sit down and talk about it, because of the conference.
“Our understanding from the conference is that Brown welcomes our initiative. At this stage it is not clear what MAFF is planning but I am sure the two campaigns can dovetail. We are not setting up in opposition to MAFF.”
MAFF, however, was less enthusiastic about a joint initiative. A spokesman says: “Essentially this is a Government initiative. At the moment there are no plans to join forces with the NFU. We will obviously be consulting and working with the NFU to devise an advertising campaign of some sort, as we will with numerous other agencies.”
Details of the MAFF campaign are still sketchy. It is likely to involve posters and leaflets and could include a food labelling campaign.
The ministry is also tightening up food labelling regulations – forcing producers to declare the country of origin as prominently and clearly as the disclosure that a product is “British”.
But European law will prevent MAFF from saying that British produce is best. Comparative advertising, implying that a country’s own produce is better than EU imports is strictly forbidden.
MAFF claims this will not get in the way of a vigorous “Buy British” campaign. A spokesman says: “People are aware that our standards of hygiene and production are better than other European countries. The problem is people don’t know which products are British. Our campaign will be about giving people the opportunity to say ‘this product is British’.”
The other problem facing a putative British food brand is that there are already dozens of different industry-backed quality assurance labels, for everything from bacon, turkey, pork, beef and lamb to apples, potatoes, cheese and milk.
The Meat & Livestock Commission, to take one example, runs a series of quality assurance schemes, including the British Quality Mark for pig meat, and is often seen as a rival for the NFU’s own assurance schemes. The MLC is part-funded by a levy on abattoirs and the EC.
MLC spokesman Trevor Hayes says: “We would support any campaign in principle but it depends on the way it develops. We want to avoid running foul of the authorities in Brussels. If they thought we were using money donated by Brussels to attack another country that would cause problems.”
Most of the supermarkets have their own quality assurance stamps and many take part in the RSPCA-backed Freedom Foods scheme, which guarantees cruelty-free produce and quality standards.
This is expected to continue – and the RSPCA last week took the opportunity to lobby the Government to add Freedom Foods to the statute book. So far it has received no response.
The Government’s long-promised Food Standards Agency, which was meant to clear up a lot of the anomalies and provide clear guidance on food quality, is still in the process of being set up. There have been calls for a European food standards agency.
According to the NFU’s research, the plethora of labels and standards agencies confuses consumers and prevents them from buying British.
Its campaign – provisionally titled Great British Food – aims to cut through the clutter with one brand, representing quality, affordable produce.
Although the NFU has less cash at its disposal than MAFF – in the region of &£2m for the launch – its plans are more advanced. Support from retailers could boost the fighting fund to the &£10m observers believe it will need to mount a truly effective campaign.
To differentiate it from previous campaigns the NFU is unlikely to use a union flag.
Chris Still, chief executive of Osprey London, one of the ad agencies pitching for the business, says: “I don’t think you would want to go down the nationalistic route. It is a well-worn path. People are beginning to get cynical about it. I would be disappointed if it used a Union Flag.”
The campaign will launch next spring, initially in fruit and vegetables, meat and other fresh food categories, before spreading to canned and packaged goods.
But, like most of the British food production chain, its success or failure will depend on the co-operation of the big supermarkets. Previous attempts at a universal branding campaign have been hampered by a lack of collaboration.
A source close to the NFU says: “When the NFU was devising the quality assurance scheme, four or five of the supermarkets fell into line, but the sixth didn’t. All of the majors co-operated except Tesco, which wanted to keep its own labelling system. It didn’t want to trade under a generic.”
Fighting for survival
This time, however, the stakes are higher. The farming industry is facing its biggest crisis to date – and not just over Europe. The farmers claim the supermarkets have pared farm gate prices to the bone, with many paying less for goods than they cost to produce.
NFU president Ben Gill says: “Despite the standards that British farmers and growers have endeavoured to meet and despite their innovation and their individual endeavours, far too many are fighting for survival.
“Pig farmers are losing &£9 per pig for every animal they sell. Dairy farmers are receiving just ten pence per pint of milk sold and egg producers get only 26p per dozen eggs. These prices are not viable.”
If the NFU is to take the lead in British food’s fightback and keep the momentum going after the initial launch, it will need Government funding and the co-operation of MAFF.
In his speech to the NFU’s Great British Food Conference last week, Nick Brown, hinted that this might happen – but officially MAFF is sticking to its guns.
Of the four big supermarkets, Sainsbury’s has shown the most initial enthusiasm for the NFU scheme.
Bob Hilborn, Sainsbury’s chief technologist with responsibility for primary agriculture, told last week’s NFU conference: “The variation in design and the sheer number of different logos only serve to dilute and confuse the message. Customers need to know what to look for and be able to recognise it.”
Somerfield has also expressed its willingness to join in and is talking to MAFF and the NFU about the way ahead. A major stumbling block is processed food, which often has ingredients from several different countries.
Somerfield spokesman Peter Williams says: “We are waiting for some clear guidance from Brown on where the focus should be and how we will get around this problem.
“We have responded to concerns from farmers, because there is no industry standard or recognised logo. We need to sit down and work this out – because there is huge expense involved in labelling and promotion and we can’t afford to get it wrong or do it piecemeal. The sooner the Food Standards Agency is up and running the better.”
He goes on: “It is time to get our heads together as an industry. There has been a lack of clear guidance from the Government.”
Asda is less keen on the NFU’s Great British Food brand. It is pressing ahead with its own Union Flag-style labelling scheme, which is about to be extended from meat and fresh food to packaged goods.
Tesco backs the NFU scheme in principle – despite its own Nature’s Choice label. It scoffs at Sainsbury’s suggestion that it will be the first to adopt the NFU template. A spokesman says: “What are they going to do, stop everybody else from adopting it?”
The history of food marketing is littered with failed “Buy British” schemes and confusing, short-lived quality-mark schemes, leading to the current unco-ordinated mess.
The NFU has seized the initiative in the push for a definitive British food brand, but its efforts will be in vain if it is not allowed to hook up with MAFF in a joint venture.
Blair and Brown seem to have ridden out the worst of the storm over France’s ban on British beef, after EU scientists last week proclaimed the meat was safe in the teeth of French opposition*. But it will be up to an ad agency to make sense of MAFF’s &£5m budget in support of British food. The strategy may be mixed in confusion, but the agency better not let shoppers into the secret.
British beef has made a strong recovery since the low point of the 1996 BSE crisis – and the public’s faith in home-produced food in general appears to be holding up well.
In 1996 yearly consumption of red meat plummeted to 12.6kg per capita, compared with 15.4kg the previous year, according to the Meat and Livestock Commission. It now stands at 15.3kg per capita – or 898,000 tonnes in total. The key market is the over-50s.
White meat was the main beneficiary of the BSE and E.Coli scares, which promoted the consumption of vegetables.
Sales of organically-produced vegetables have taken off, amid concerns about pesticides and genetic modification. In Mintel’s report Organic and Ethical Foods, Market Intelligence, the organic produce market is estimated to have been worth &£260m in 1997, with an estimated growth rate of 25 per cent a year.
According to an NFU survey, three out of four consumers believe British food is better quality than other countries. Just five per cent believe French food offers the best quality. Fewer still have any confidence in food from Brazil or Thailand, where the supermarkets are increasingly sourcing produce. British food is also the safest to eat, according to 72 per cent of the respondents.
Nearly 40 per cent, however, believe British food is not prominent on supermarket shelves and is not clearly labelled.