Flogging a dead cause?

British meat has gone from one crisis to another. First BSE ran rampant, devastating stocks of British Beef, then, just as the industry began to recover, came foot-and-mouth. Once the present meat crisis is over, how can consumers be persuaded

1997 1998 1999 2000 Beef 627 714 724 744 Lamb 212 253 253 265 Pork 676 679 593 526

1997 1998 1999 2000 Beef – – – 0.5 Lamb 108 98 110 94 Pork 199 245 233 202

1997 1998 1999 2000 Beef 73 80 79 78 Lamb 60 66 67 68 Pork 82 80 72 66

When the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease that has hit the UK over the past fortnight is conquered, the costly job of rebuilding British meat sales will begin.

As the last flames die down around the carcasses of many tens of thousands of pigs, sheep and cattle, incinerated to contain the disease, attention will switch from vets and meat hygiene officers to promotions and advertising.

British meat’s advertising spokesman Tim Nice But Dim has been temporarily taken off television screens following the outbreak.

The Meat & Livestock Commission, the body responsible for the Nice But Dim campaign, together with the National Union of Farmers and supermarket groups, will have their work cut out to relaunch British meat.

The MLC and its ad agency BMP DDB will have to persuade shoppers that British meat is the safest, most succulent and tastiest cut they can buy.

Health scares

Yet again, they will be called upon to promote confidence in British meat following a health scare – a task in which they have plenty of experience.

They had notable success in relaunching British beef after the BSE crisis in 1996, helped by radical government action which extended to the slaughtering of cattle over 30 months and the removal of spinal cord and tissue from dead cows. But the body says it is unclear whether this relaunch will be so successful.

The MLC admits it has played the national card by portraying foreign beef, pork and lamb as less safe than British meat. Beef sales in the UK are at record levels (see chart), helped partly by the collapse in prices as BSE spread to other European countries, but also by a major relaunch.

Foot and mouth is, of course, different. The BSE crisis was sparked by the Government’s 1996 announcement of a possible link between BSE in cattle and variant CJD in humans. Foot and mouth holds no threat to human safety and does not usually even kill the affected animals. But such realities are not fundamental to marketing – it is perceptions that will determine the success of the relaunch of British beef, lamb and pork at some point later this year.

The MLC conducted research between February 27 and March 1 through Taylor Nelson Sofres’ phone poll, Phonebus, which showed that 24 per cent of the 1,000 people questioned nationally believe foot and mouth might affect human health – yet 90 per cent of meat buyers say there will be no change to their meat buying pattern, a logic worthy of the very dimmest of Tims.

MLC marketing director Richard Lowe joined the body in March 1999, replacing Gwyn Howells, who was promoted to director general in November 1998. Lowe had lost his position as marketing director of Victoria Wines to his Thresher counterpart Ralph Hayward when the two companies merged in 1998.

Lowe says that the longer the crisis continues, the harder it will be to persuade UK consumers to shop in supermarkets for British meat. He says marketing will be the first thing to suffer.

Its latest ad campaign was scrapped because there is no point promoting meat against negative headlines. Lowe points out that the MLC gets most of its marketing budget from a levy made on every animal which is slaughtered. Two levies are collected per head of animal which enters an abattoir, under the Agriculture Act 1967. One levy funds various projects including scientific research, while the other is specifically spent on promoting meat. The joint levies are: 4.35 per head of cattle; 1.05 per pig and 65p per sheep. The levies raise 34m annually for the MLC, which means that every week the abattoirs lie dormant the commission misses out on 640,000. The longer that foot and mouth rages, the longer it will be before the MLC can start to make any sort of income to market meat, and surmount the negative perceptions instigated by the disease. Although movement of livestock to abattoirs is set to begin again, Lowe says it will be some time before the MLC will see a full levy.

Foreign meat

Supermarkets believe supplies of meat will run out this week and have turned to overseas markets to keep their shelves fully stocked. There has been a surplus of European beef because consumption on the Continent has plummeted since last year’s BSE outbreak. Germany, for example, saw a 70 per cent fall in beef sales in the last three months of 2000.

The MLC will also suffer because of the European BSE outbreak. The EU has suspended grants for the marketing of beef because of the outbreak and as a consequence the MLC has shelved plans for a British beef ad campaign at Easter.

The MLC has spent an average of 6m on above-the-line ads, through BMP DDB, in the past three years and 25m to 30m on marketing in total. Although it has marketing money in reserve, Lowe admits: “We don’t know if there’ll be a loss of credibility for the industry because of this outbreak. We don’t know when it’s going to end. If it develops into a deeper crisis, we’ll need more money afterwards.”

However, Lowe says British consumers’ firm belief that home-grown livestock is best will stabilise confidence in meat during the crisis. He adds: “Supermarkets have generally been very supportive of British produce from a marketing perspective. A lot of the chains have defined their ‘Britishness’ by how they market their meat range.

“The British love of red meat is pretty resilient. They are most comfortable with British meat and believe it is the safest because we have so many constraints after BSE.”

Lowe points out these consumers have “an emotional instinct” to say British is best. The MLC played on this when trying to raise poor pork sales with a controversial campaign which has been banned by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) (MW February 15). The ads included one which featured a sow suckling several piglets with the strapline: “After she’s fed them, she could be fed to them”, making the point that UK livestock rearing rules are more stringent than those on the Continent. Two out of seven complaints, filed by members of the public and the Danish Bacon & Meat Council, were upheld by the ASA, which banned all four ads.

But the MLC is appealing against the ban. Lowe says: “We were satisfied that when consumers were confronted with this issue in a bold way they would be concerned about it.

“We weren’t planning to run the same executions, but we’re concerned the ASA’s adjudication will put constraints on future use of the same concepts.”

Retaining confidence

But he admits people will switch to imported meat when they have no choice – and that could be where marketing British meat, to persuade them to buy it again, becomes tricky.

“We’re desperate for people to retain confidence in meat eating, and we want them to choose British produce by preference.

“The recovery from foot and mouth will be about tapping into consumers’ inherent belief that British meat raised on British farms is better than anywhere else in the world,” he says.

The major retail chains do not believe this crisis will affect people’s attitudes towards British meat produce in the long term. However, Sainsbury’s is already looking at ways to help farmers continue to get the message across that British meat is safe to eat.

A spokesman says: “We are looking with producers for ways to promote and increase sales after the crisis has ended, although nothing has been decided at the moment.”

According to NFU deputy director general Ian Gardiner, the union is likely to launch a “British lamb and beef is back” campaign when the crisis dies down.

But he warns that there will be a surplus of British meat as hundreds of thousands of animals – particularly pigs – could be in the pipeline which have been neither killed nor sold during the outbreak.

“There will be a backlog. We will have more meat but won’t be able to export it – a quarter of lamb is exported. The worry is not about safety, the problem will be edging consumption up. We will need to kick start the market by increased promotions,” he says.

National identity

For the MLC and the farmers, consumers’ patriotic tendencies are one of the strongest weapons they can employ for the relaunch of British meat. It is not only Britain where patriotism is rife: other European countries promote similar feelings towards their own produce.

Datamonitor’s lead analyst Hugo Ehrnreich says: “It is a marketing technique that many countries use. It is one of the paradoxes that as we stand in the middle of the storm of globalisation, people look back for an anchor in their own identities.”

Restoring confidence in British meat will face a number of hurdles following the foot and mouth outbreak, although it is by now a well practised operation. But a time could come when consumers’ patience with bad news about British meat wears thin. It will be up to the Government and food industry to find ways to avoid another crisis hitting British beef, lamb and pork.

Additional reporting by David Benady and Justine Storey

Sales of British Meat 1997 – 2000 in UK (‘000s tonnes)

1997 1998 1999 2000 Beef 627 714 724 744 Lamb 212 253 253 265 Pork 676 679 593 526

Sales of British Meat 1997 – 2000 Export (‘000s tonnes)

1997 1998 1999 2000 Beef – – – 0.5 Lamb 108 98 110 94 Pork 199 245 233 202

UK produced meat’s share of UK Market (%)

1997 1998 1999 2000 Beef 73 80 79 78 Lamb 60 66 67 68 Pork 82 80 72 66

Source: MLC

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