Marketing Strategy

The UK food industry is squandering its best opportunity for decades (and where are the marketers?)


First we had Horsegate.

Now we’ve got a survey suggesting that mothers don’t cook from scratch any more.

You’ve got to wonder why the food industry is wasting its best opportunity for decades to change consumer behaviour – and I’ve got to ask: Where are the marketers in all of this?

Let me being with one very basic, and slightly sideline, point.

Today is International Women’s Day.  I find it depressingly interesting that the survey into British cooking habits conducted by Change4Life and reported in the Telegraph (plus other outlets) looks at mother’s cooking habits.

I thought that we’d maybe moved on as a nation to a point where men not only knew what a saucepan was, but how to use it as well.

Are we thus to assume from this report that a mother’s place is in the home, wedded to the stove?  Are we still in the 1950s? 

I leave you to draw your own conclusions.  On with the main show.

The food industry is facing unparalleled turmoil.

Horsegate (which I covered here) has left many people unnerved by the prospect that their food not only contains something that they wouldn’t choose to eat, but by the fact that they can’t trust the packing promise any more either.

In fact, the whole food contamination issue has seen consumers changing their habits and heading to the vegetarian alternative aisle.

This means one thing.  And I’m going to use a bloody great big font to underline the point.

Consumers are open to changing their behaviour

Marketing is all about creating behavioural change.

I talk about behavioural change a lot on this blog.  Check out this post about why moving my kitchen bin reveals a deeply hidden marketing truth.

Here’s another post about marketing as behavioural change in the trust economy.

I shall stop being so self-referential.  You get my point.

Marketers work hard to create the conditions for behavioural change, for overcoming barriers, to changing patterns of thought and action.

It’s what we do.

With the Horsegate scandal, consumers are changing their behaviour – with no prompting from us.

All of the normal barriers we’re faced with, habit, perception etc, are being washed away in a flood of damaging, negative press.

So why is no-one capitalising on this?

If the consumer cognitive momentum is already moving in favour of alternative food stuffs and alternative sources of that food, why is there no work nudging them in the direction that they’re already moving?

It is easier to push a car that’s already moving than try to deflect one that’s rolling towards you.  Trust me, I’ve tried.

Now we’re told that children are being fed prepackaged, processed, food because mothers lack confidence and time.

To brands, this should send a clear signal.

Forget acting as the purveyor of food stuffs.

Start acting as the enabler of great food.

Teach, if that’s what it takes.

Combat perceptions, show alternatives. Push knowledge, content, engagement.

Understand the mindset of the customer, understand why they don’t feel confident or enabled, then take steps to remedy that.

Which brings me to my last point:

Where are the marketers?

As much as marketing’s all about data, creative, audience insight and cool stuff, it’s also about getting out of the ivory tower, taking a gut-feel pulse of what’s going on around the brand and then acting on that.

Marketers should be taking the understandings of horsegate, low confidence and high time pressures and devising flexible, agile solutions that cut right to the heart of consumer behaviour.

But, you know what?  I don’t see any of this happening.

All I see as a shopper is the same old same.  Hawking of product. BOGOF. Nothing inspirational.

Why are marketers not giving their brands the greatest service possible and positioning them to make a real difference to the lives of their consumers?

If you can answer that, let me know.  Because I can’t.

All I smell is conservative fear – which I can’t understand.

An opportunity like this won’t come again.

Three things the UK food industry needs to do today:

1) Grow some balls and push back against Horsegate with finely honed, customer focussed creative which positions new opportunities and capitalises on the behaviour change that’s already happening.

2) Act now to become an enabler brand, helping your customers (be they mothers, fathers, care-givers or just harassed DINKYs) to eat cheaply and well.

3) If you don’t know how to do the above, get in contact with me.  Because I have the ideas and I’ll be happy to consult for you.

So there we have it.

The UK is primed for a food revolution, and savvy marketers should be leading the way.

But the opportunity is being wasted.

And anyone who cares about what they eat, and cares as deeply as I do about the marketing industry, should be up in arms about it.

Neil Hopkins is a Marketing and Branding Theorist at heart, and a Marketing Communications Manager by day. His blog – interacter – is the primary location he shares insight and information relating to marketing, branding and advertising strategy.
You can follow Neil on Twitter, circle him (like an escaped bull) on Google+ or track him down in any number of other ways.

Feature image from RoadsidePictures on Flickr.

2 thoughts on “The UK food industry is squandering its best opportunity for decades (and where are the marketers?)

  1. For those with short attention spans a quick summary of the following post:

    – Cheap meat producers – you got caught
    – Food producers – “ask no questions, tell no lies” – is not a defence
    – Supermarkets – you got what you deserved, demanding lower prices cuts quality
    – Government – you failed us and are continuing to do so
    – Shoppers – what did you think was in the food?

    Key point: The food industry got caught. Simple as that. This whole situation was completely predictable and completely avoidable. The real issue though is not crap food, or even the contribution to obesity, but the failure of any form of ethics in so many food companies and supermarkets but worst of all – the complete failure of government to do anything about this. This is the core reason supermarkets are full of crap food and our nation is now the fattest in Europe.

    I have no sympathy for ANY food producer who produced this crap food. I have no sympathy for any supermarket who demanded the lowest possible price without caring what they were selling. I have no sympathy for any producer who reengineered their value chain to minimise costs without caring about where the source was or what the quality was. I have no sympathy for successives governments whose lack of clarity on their role (tip: your ultimate responsibility is to the citizen – NOT BUSINESS) helped cause this.

    Almost all participants knowingly participated in this – and therefore need to take some part of the responsibility. At this point, I include shoppers too. They demanded lower prices, they bought the cheap food. Admittedly, you didn’t know it was horse, but for years mechanically recovered meat has been a key constituent of cheap processed food and people continued to buy it.

    And I don’t let marketers off by the way. You, we, are guilty too.

    For years, our a majority of our food industry could be broadly characterised by ‘Ask no questions hear no lies’. A conspiracy of mislabelling, bullshit content listing and irresponsible marketing has created low fat foods that are full of sugar, low sugar foods that are full of fat, healthy foods more unhealthy than the generic version and the situation whereby a chemistry degree is needed to decode even basic foods. Manufacturers knew what was in there, as did supermarkets, as did governments. And all the while, the poor consumer who wanted to save money found themselves getting fatter without any real understanding of why. I’m not letting people out of personal responsibility, but if you think that food labelling doesn’t matter and isn’t important, then you don’t appreciate how good food marketers are at their job.

    London, we have a problem.

    Here is what I think the problem is.

    Our food industry has the ethics of an alley cat. The producers, the supermarkets, the fast food chains.

    I’m happy to debate this, but I’ll take your response seriously when there are more incentives on buying healthy food rather than crap, when food is labelled honestly and chocolate and sugar coated in honey is not allowed to be called a breakfast cereal.

    The one group that could do something, Government, seems unwilling to actually grow a set of balls and do its job. This is a massive error, both ethically and financially. If you think correcting this and intervening would be expensive, just wait until those obese kids start becoming obese adults and demanding help from the NHS. Any costs today will seem inconsequential compared to managing a country where the majority of citizens are overweight and obese. It is this point that I care about most.

    Being in business does not require you to have no morals. It doesn’t require a continual lack of responsibility. It doesn’t mean that you cannot care. Today though, this is what most people see.

    You have a choice. As a consumer. As a marketer. As an advertiser. As a Product Manager. As a buyer. As a corporate strategist. As a person. As a parent. You have a choice.

    I’m not going to argue that tackling obesity and our food supply is not a big and highly complex challenge, it is. It absolutely fulfils the criteria of a ‘wicked problem’. But this does not mean that it cannot be solved. It can.

    Where government has this COMPLETELY WRONG though is in thinking that this is about massive funding (which means nothing will happen); a huge complex top down programme that takes years to design and ends up being completely ineffective as it is continually watered to the point of ineffectiveness and minor corrective changes to legislation.

    The starting point is a set of simple, unambiguous and easily understood principles.

    Once you agree these, designing actions and programs to effect change is pretty straight forward. Once you know these, you can define the cost.

    The same principle applies to companies too.

    – Don’t start by reengineering your supply chain
    – Don’t start by redesigning packaging
    – Don’t start by launching another fad product
    – Don’t start by marketing about how sorry you are (although nothing has changed)

    Start by making some simple and clear statements about what you stand for. Be bold and ambitious, but keep them simple and clear. Start with your ethics, your principles and your beliefs. Once you have these in place, you have a firm foundation on which to build a sustainable company. Define what you stand for – THEN you can start to fix the problems and design the type of company that you can be proud of.

    If you are stuck, don’t seek an MBA wielding corporate strategist. Don’t attend the latest industry summit, instead read The Responsible Company by Patagonia Founder Yvon Chouinard or read the autobiography of Body Shop founder Anita Roddick. Learn from those who tried their best to put principles first. You will discover it is not easy, that it is not a route without failure, but it is the right thing to do.

    This is not just a wake up call for the food industry, but to all organisations.

    Ethics matter. They always did.

  2. Pingback: Horse meat and the simple lesson that applies to all companies | gary burt

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