Horse meat scandal has had a lasting effect on how food is marketed

Brand reputations may have recovered and customer attitudes may not have fundamentally changed, but the horse meat scandal has had a lasting effect on how brands market food.

A number of brands were caught up in the horse meat scandal

The scandal emerged a year ago today (15 January) when Irish food inspectors found traces of horse meat in some frozen beefburgers stocked by UK supermarkets including Tesco and Lidl. In the immediate aftermath of the news retailers that were hit and those that were not took steps to reassure customers through press ads and online communications.

Figures from YouGov’s Brand Index suggest that this went some way to appeasing shoppers. The reputation of the “Supermarket” and “Frozen/Chilled Food” sectors took a hit in the immediate aftermath of the scandal, but both have since recovered.

Meanwhile, in a poll of the UK pubic by Kantar Worldpanel, the numbers planning to change how they shop have also dropped. In January 2013, 19 per cent of people said they would not buy from brands linked to the horsemeat scandal but this has now dropped to 9 per cent.

Similarly, 15 per cent said they would not buy economy ranges of meat a year ago, with this figure dropping to 7 per cent. Sales declines of frozen burgers have also slowed, from 41% per cent in March and April to 1 per cent for the 12 weeks to 8 December.

Ralph Risk, analyst at Kantar company Lightspeed Research, says: “In the heat of the horsemeat scandal the majority of consumers felt the news would cause them to change how they shopped for meat. While a year later we are still feeling the impact of the scandal, the research seems to indicate that this impact is lessening.”

However, Nicola Marsh, associate director at consumer insight firm River Research, says the scandal has had a “lasting effect” on how brands communicate with their customers. She describes it as a “nail in the coffin” for the many consumers that were already growing increasingly concerned about the origins of their food.

“Horse meat had a bigger and more lasting effect than many brands thought. It has changed the way people talk about food more permanently. Provenance and trust in food buying is past the point of no return,” she adds.

That is borne out in how marketing by many of the major supermarkets, fast food chains and frozen food firms is increasingly focused on sustainability and provenance.

Morrisons tried to rise above the horse meat scandal by highlighting its focus on provenance and control over its supply chain. Sainsbury’s meanwhile has trumpted the role its “values-driven” message has played in its strong performance in recent months, with the supermarket outperforming its main rivals over Christmas.

A campaign launched by Tesco in July aimed to regain consumer trust and improve perception of the quality of its food offering through its “Love Every Mouthful” message, which highlights the provenance of its fresh produce. Birds Eye is also building sustainability and provenance into its marketing message to ensure it is “constantly” reassuring consumers about the quality of its supply chain and its high standards.

McDonald’s, which was not implicated in the scandal, attempted to allay concerns through a nationwide provenance push. The fast food chain’s UK vice president of supply chain, Warren Anderson, says the discovery of horse meat in some food products caused consumers to increasingly question what goes into the food they buy and where it comes from.

He adds: “Today, quality food made using responsibly sourced ingredients is more important to consumers than ever before.

“One year on people continue to ask questions and want to find out more about our menu. We have responded by reassuring our customers that they can continue to trust in the quality of food they’ve always enjoyed at our restaurants through channels such as ‘What Makes McDonald’s’, our online customer portal. Looking ahead, we will continue to ensure the quality of our products through uncompromising standards and working closely with our supply chain partners.”