Talking turkey

Jamie Oliver’s crusade against Turkey Twizzlers, animal cruelty allegations and an outbreak of avian flu have damaged the Bernard Matthews brand. Caroline Parry finds hope for the future

Bernard Matthews has come a long way since he launched his company with just 12 young turkeys back in 1950. The company now has 57 turkey farms across the UK, and company chairman Matthews has become a household name after starring in its ads.

But it is unlikely that Matthews would apply his trademark “bootiful” catchphrase to the company’s fortunes in recent years following a string of controversies that have shaken consumer confidence in the brand.

In 2005, its Turkey Twizzlers product was singled out by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and demonised as one of the worst examples of processed food, during his one-man crusade to improve children’s eating habits. Just as the resulting public outrage seemed to have died down, last September two Bernard Matthews workers were found guilty of animal cruelty after being filmed playing “baseball” with live turkeys. They were given 200 hours’ community service.

Again, just as Matthews and his company were bouncing back from that, 2,600 turkeys on one of his farms were found to have succumbed to the deadly H5N1 strain of avian flu. The company had to slaughter 159,000 birds to contain the virus before being able to announce that it had been prevented from entering the food chain.

Last week, the Food Standards Agency announced that the company would not face prosecution, despite accusations of breaches of biosecurity and a lack of transparency about the transportation of turkeys from Hungary, where the disease has been identified.

Bernard Matthews claims the fact it has been cleared shows that it acted with “integrity and professionalism”, although food industry insiders say the consensus is that the company handled the crisis badly. However, no one will be drawn on what the company should have done differently.

Bernard Matthews marketing director Matt Pullen is keen to get on with rebuilding consumer trust. He says the company will press ahead with a major brand refreshment, including new packaging and variants, which he claims it has been planning for more than a year.

Pullen says that the biggest issue the brand faces in the long term is the general backlash against processed foods. He admits that Jamie Oliver’s tirade against Turkey Twizzlers was “a bit of kick up the backside” and that the high-profile coverage, combined with consumer research, made the company realise that it was time to go back to basics.

He explains: “It led us to reconsider the brand in a big way. We had become a generic food brand and we hadn’t kept abreast of changes in the food market, such as the move towards fewer artificial flavourings and lower fat and salt content.”

This led to the launch of an integrated campaign in May last year that aimed to emphasise Bernard Matthews’ position as a family-oriented brand, yet move it on from the traditional “bootiful” advertising by using interactive TV, sponsorship, online and magazines. It focused on recipes and family life and used Matthews, its advertising icon, more sparingly than previously (MW April 27, 2006).

An advertising industry source says moving its advertising beyond Matthews has been a major challenge, for two reasons. First, sales tended to fall when he did not appear, because consumers trust him. Second, because Matthews himself remains fully in control, “if he did not like it, you would know about it”. For these reasons, the company founder has been heading the brand’s reassurance campaign in recent weeks.

Next month, the brand relaunch begins in earnest with a range of new products such as Golden Drummers made with 100% breast meat, and new variants of its best-selling wafer-thin turkey ham, which is worth £40m at retail. The revamp aims to build on the fact that turkey is the only meat considered to be a “superfood”.

Pullen says that turkey consumption in the UK is at just 5% compared to over 20% in the US. He believes that Bernard Matthews needs to come out fighting. He says: “What our consumers want now is confident messages. I would be lying if I said we hadn’t lost consumers, but we are confident that the ‘refresh’ will bring in fresh consumers.”

There are plans to launch free-range and organic whole birds, crowns and joints this year in a bid to move the brand into new markets, but Pullen acknowledges that Bernard Matthews will never be seen as a “treat”. “We are everyday tea-time products,” he adds, although he does not rule out launching a premium brand at a later date.

Interbrand managing director Graham Hales says the brand can extend into the organic arena, providing it has a “convincing story and it is articulated well”.

Pullen is convinced that it does have a good story to tell. It has reformulated several products, he says, but “only where it doesn’t compromise taste” and it has introduced alternative products to offer a choice.

There are plans for a major Christmas campaign, with a view to becoming synonymous with the festive period. Pullen hopes that if this is successful, the “emotional penetration and warmth” will spread across the rest of the year.

He is confident that the company can move on from the dark days of avian flu and Turkey Twizzlers, but ultimately it will be consumers who decide whether Bernard Matthews is still “bootiful”.

Facts and figures

Bernard Matthews

  • In 1960 Bernard Matthews entered the Guinness Book of Records as the biggest turkey farmer in Europe
  • Bernard Matthews appeared in his first advertisement in 1980 to promote the Turkey Breast Roast
  • The company was publicly listed in 1971 but was bought back by the Matthews family and privatised again in 2001 after fighting off a takeover bid from Sara Lee in 2000
  • In 2005, the company had an annual turnover of more than £400m.