Modern branding receives boost from EU

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Sensational branding news was announced last week. Cumberland sausages have been granted protected geographical indication (PGI) by the European Union. The greatest of all the British sausages now joins the likes of Champagne, Parma ham and Stilton cheese as a truly distinctive and protected brand of food.

Specifically, all Cumberland sausages must now be produced exclusively in Cumbria (the modern name for the ancient region of Cumberland), using at least 80% pork, presented in the traditional three-quarters of an inch thick coil, and containing the original herbs and spices that were once an essential part of its manufacture.

Many of you southern softies may be scratching your heads at this point trying to work out why this is such enormous branding news. It’s enormous because I am a Cumbrian branding professor. I was born and bred in Whitehaven, so when I say southern softies, I mean everyone south of Lancaster.

Cumberland sausage is incredibly important to the culture and people of Cumbria. It has been a staple for 500 years and its manufacture is forged from the history of the area. The spices in a real Cumberland sausage were originally sourced from the trade ships that linked Cumbria to the Americas and Africa when Whitehaven was the biggest port in the country.

It might be a pretty little Georgian town now, but its history is a proud one and it is reflected not in paintings or poetry but in our sausages. As Peter Gott, of the Cumberland Sausage Association, elegantly put it last week: “This is a great milestone for the county and a well deserved place in England’s food history for a truly sensational diverse food product.”

It’s an important milestone not just because of what makes Cumberland sausage so special but also who cannot now make it. Over the past 30 years I have observed with great dismay the bastardisation of the Cumberland sausage. A trip to your local supermarket this week will reveal a veritable smorgasbord of Cumberland sausage options – almost all of them impostors.

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In Tesco, for example, you can buy a dozen Wall’s Cumberland sausages for £2.50. That’s a great price, which is achievable because Wall’s sausages are made from only 61% pork and the rest from a variety of ingredients including rusk, potato starch and onion powder. And even the 61% that is made from pork is mysterious because Wall’s doesn’t actually let you know where its pigs are raised – except that it’s certainly not in Cumberland.

Wall’s pork products are sourced from other parts of the UK and also from overseas farms where pigs are treated more “economically” and without the appropriate care and standards that these intelligent animals should receive. Subsequently, their meat is much lower priced but also much less tasty.

When recently challenged about making more of their food from ethically raised, British pigs, Wall’s CEO Stan McCarthy made it clear that such a move would “jeopardise our brand positioning and our business overall”. Well Mr McCarthy, you are not the only one with brand positioning and I am delighted to tell you that you and your firm are now out of the Cumberland sausage making business because your approach is unacceptable to the standards we Cumbrians set.

It’s not just the low end where the new PGI legislation will have an impact. Until recently Waitrose has been selling Cumberland ring sausages under Prince Charles’ Duchy Originals brand name. They are fine sausages, but they are not Cumbrian. Duchy Originals’ pork comes from Gloucester and Norfolk, which is about as far from Cumbria as you can get.

I am sure Prince Charles would find offence if I started wandering around London telling everyone I was the heir to the throne. Well up in Cumbria we don’t like southern farms presenting their sausages as if they came from our region. So I must politely (but firmly) remind His Royal Highness of our PGI status and ask him to cease and desist his sausage marketing immediately.

I could go on. I could tell you about Jamie Oliver’s Cumberland sausages. About Tesco’s “Light Choices” Cumberland sausage. I could mention Quorn vegetarian Cumberland sausages (no Cumberland, and no sausage). But instead I will just breathe a deep sigh of relief and enjoy the thought of every future Cumberland sausage coming from Cumbria.

There is a serious side to all this. The word brand means, literally, to burn the mark of a founder or creator onto a product and to say “I made that”. In this place and in this time and with these ingredients – I made that. And while it’s common in the UK to question the motives and operations of the EU, the fact remains that its PGI strategy has become the single most important development in modern branding. Protecting the heritage and provenance of local brands has to be a good thing. Good for consumers. Good for marketers. And good for the people of Cumbria.

Now if you will excuse me, I’m off to see my mother who has something in the oven for me.

Mark Ritson is an associate professor of marketing, an award winning columnist, and a consultant to some of the world’s biggest brands

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