This article is the latest in our Big Debate series. We’ve opened the discussion but you get to decide the verdict about this issue on the forums – if you are 21-35 it may win you a ticket to the Oxford Farming Conference. Full details here

Whether you’re 60 or 16, you’re probably familiar with the phrase “Go to work on an egg”.

go-to-work-on-an-egg

The egg advertising campaign may have first run more than 50 years ago, but it has become an iconic slogan, taking its place alongside such greats as: “Have a break, have a Kit-Kat”, “The future’s bright, the future’s Orange”, and “A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play”.

But what about more recently? Has any sector of the farming industry come up with anything that can rival it? And does it matter?

Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones says agriculture has much to learn. “The farming industry is one of the worst there is at marketing itself,” says the Jamaican-born farmer and advertising guru, who sells products under The Black Farmer brand.

“At the moment, we’re not prepared to be adventurous. I don’t see any signs of courage.”

He’d like to see an all-encompassing strategy to get British consumers to be more supportive of British produce. “An over-arching team, coming up with the strategy, then everything else working towards that.”

For too long, different factions have pursued their own goals – all too often ineffectively, he claims. “Everyone brings their own personal agendas and guards the money that they have jealously. They don’t understand that we are at war, and when you’re at war, the best way of winning is by working as a team.”

He maintains that farmers need to build a more direct relationship with consumers, so establishing an “emotional connection”.

“If we want real power, we need to get consumers on side and they will then put pressure on the supermarkets. That’s how a brand is built, by having people committed to it. We need to ask consumers to be our infantry troops.”

If farmers get consumers backing them, then supermarkets will stock and support British produce because their customers won’t be happy if they don’t, says Mr Emmanuel-Jones.

One area where the agricultural industry needs to up its game is communicating better with urbanites, he adds. “All too often money is spent talking to ourselves.”

beefy and lamby

One campaign that he particularly disliked was EBLEX’s “Beefy and Lamby” advert. “It’s dated,” he reckons. “It was probably devised by old men in grey suits who love cricket. Why would they think that that was going to translate to a housewife living in, say, London or Bradford?”

Richard Lowe, chief executive of EBLEX, acknowledges that the “Beefy and Lamby” campaign has had its detractors, but says that in terms of the number of people who saw it, and the recognition of the EBLEX quality mark it generated, it scored well.

The adverts haven’t actually run on TV since the spring because extra government funding for consumer-facing marketing has come to an end, he says. “[The adverts] did the primary job that they set out to do.”

EBLEX spends about £6.5m on marketing and promotion, with about a third going on export activity, a third on consumer marketing and a third on UK trade marketing targeting the supply chain.

But he says these figures are dwarfed by the advertising spend of big food companies, such as McDonalds, which spend about 5% of their sales revenue on advertising.

“A beef producer pays about £3.50 a head of beast in levy, which, if it is 340kg, works out as 1p/kg, which is a very small percentage of the sales price.”

In the future, the industry has to look at what is feasible with the money on offer, says Mr Lowe. “I do believe that the strongest connection you can have with consumers is emotional, rather than rational. The nirvana for us in agriculture is building an emotional link between consumers and farming.

“What the MLC did in the 1990s with the ‘Recipe For Love’ campaign – at the height of BSE – is a good example. It made people feel good about eating meat and it was a very strong campaign.”

Finding messages that consumers are receptive to, and have an emotional resonance with, is certainly something that BPEX has been trying to achieve, says its marketing manager Chris Lamb.

“Consumer advertising is expensive and, if you are going to do it, you need to be really clear about what you are trying to achieve.

“With the “Pigs Are Worth It” campaign, we knew that we were pushing at an open door, as people had said they wanted to buy British.”

BPEX-pork-cuts-ad

Too frequently, he says, messages are forced on people. “The age of just pushing a message is over. The model today is about getting people involved, the use of websites, videos – a campaign that is fun and involving. ‘Pigs Are Worth It’ now has 20,000 signatures and Stand by your Ham received worldwide coverage.”

There are some people in the industry who think the job of PR-ing and advertising should fall to the NFU, which for the past year has been championing agriculture through its Farming Matters campaign.

Liz Falkingham, the NFU’s director of communications, says Farming Matters has involved a multi-faceted approach, targeting decision-makers and the wider public, with the message tailored accordingly.

The union is also involved in more focused campaigns. For example, it took out adverts in the national press highlighting the number of cows being killed because of government’s refusal to take action on the TB issue. The adverts were stark, showing a cow slaughtered as a TB reactor.

Members do ask if the union could produce TV adverts or programmes promoting farming, she says. “But mainstream TV ads cost millions of pounds and there is no way we are going to do that.”

One approach the union has been taking is to work with TV and radio researchers and producers to feed into the production process. An example where this worked well is Jimmy Doherty’s Farming Heroes – the NFU’s regional press teams helped the production team ahead of filming.

NFU poultry board chairman Charles Bourns is a firm believer in the power of effective advertising and PR.

“Farmers say: ‘Unless you have millions, you won’t make a difference.’ But you can if you are focused and set yourself a target. Then you look at other campaigns that spend millions and wonder where the hell it went.”

Mr Bourns stresses the key is coming up with simple, consistent messages and thoroughly testing them with focus groups before launching them. “There’s no point putting out messages people either don’t like or don’t understand.”

Having retailer support is also vital, he maintains. “You must have retailers on your side because if they don’t believe in it, they won’t give it shelf space.”

In many ways, he says, the chicken industry has been trying to emulate the success of the Lion Egg, which he calls “a blueprint for anybody who wants to run a campaign on a relatively small amount of money”.

Kevin Coles of the British Egg Information Service, says the Lion egg, now celebrating its 10th anniversary, reassured the consumer about safety and healthiness and protected the market against imports on an annual budget of £2m to £4m. “That’s a drop in the ocean for some marketing companies.”

Sales of Lion eggs rose 2.7% last year, he points out. Before 1998, the figure was falling at between 6 and 8% a year.

It’s a positive result and one that should give hope to the rest of the industry. But at the same time, the question remains: Should and could the industry be working closer together on more unified campaigns?

afs red tractor

It’s a topical issue as the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board has just closed its consultation on whether food should be promoted under a single logo – probably the Red Tractor – rather than the plethora of quality marks that exist.

Those against the proposal say that lumping everything under one logo will water down its impact and undermine what has been achieved so far with quality marks.

But there are others – including the NFU – that believe it would give farmers “more bang for their bucks”. Which sounds like an advertising slogan in itself.

Join our Big Debate about this issue on the forums – if you are 21-35 it may win you a ticket to the Oxford Farming Conference. Full details here