LIZ BROADBENT arrived at the Milk Development Council last November as its new marketing director and has wasted no time trying to reverse years of industry complacency.

“Research shows that milk is bought by 99% of households at least once a week and most people say that the milk they buy is very good,” says Ms Broadbent, who has worked with Arla and Taunton Cider.

Those statistics would be music to the ears of most marketers, but to Ms Broadbent they are the very reason the industry has failed to innovate and add enough value to its primary product, especially as the volume of liquid milk sold is declining.

“Although there are some people out there doing things and reacting to the potential of the market, the industry as a whole has been left behind and hasn’t kept up with the change in people’s behaviour and has taken them for granted.

“A lot of the people buying milk just want it to put it in their tea and wouldn”t consider actually drinking it.” Meal patterns have also changed and people tend to “graze” on the go rather than sitting down to eat.

“We have to ask if we’ve got the right products in the right places? One of the biggest consumer bones of contention is that they can”t drink milk easily. If I was to walk out of my office where could I go to drink milk?”

Ms Broadbent also says too many people, including farmers, assume the public understands the value of milk, but this is not necessarily the case. “There is a generation that associates milk with fat, not nutrition. And in the supermarket it is sold as a bulk product in a boring plastic package.

“There is no information there on the label, no consumer benefit. People choose to drink soya milk instead because they think it is healthier. A lot of countries are way ahead of us on the development of markets.”

To help rectify this lack of awareness, both on the part of consumers and the industry, Ms Broadbent has committed a sizeable chunk of the MDC’s £3.5m marketing budget to a big customer survey that would be standard practice in other sectors.

The aim of the 1000-person study will be to segment the public, based on their lifestyles and attitudes to milk, and then target those who are likely to be receptive to specific marketing techniques to persuade them to drink more milk.

“I am expecting to find about five distinct segments,” says Ms Broadbent. “There will be those who know the value of dairy products and follow a balanced diet, we won’t need to target those. At the other end of the spectrum there will be those who are very negative about dairy and it will be too hard and expensive to convert them.”

But in the middle, she says, will be separate groups, like young women, undecided about their attitudes to dairy and whose behaviour could be influenced by the right messages.

The next task will be to discover how to make those messages successful. This could involve designing mocked-up advertising material and gauging the reaction, or commissioning research that would persuade people of milk’s health benefits, says Ms Broadbent.

Positive articles extolling the nutritional value of milk and scotching misunderstandings about its fat content in the women’s lifestyle press could be one way of doing this. “There are no positive urban myths about milk,” she complains.

MDC campaigns are match-funded so, once the results of the survey and the subsequent research are finalised, hopefully later this year, Ms Broadbent says she will look for partners to put them into practice. “We will be comparing ideas with the processors.”

But this is unlikely to include a big revival of the generic White Stuff campaign. Ms Broadbent says such campaigns are expensive and better results are likely to be achieved by more targeted advertising, aimed at a particular audience with a strong message.

Reversing long-held attitudes to milk looks like a tough target, but she is confident that it can be done. “I don’t see why milk can’t have the same impact as water. Yogurt has already done it and so has cheese to a certain extent.”

But how quickly any results will take to affect farm-gate prices is hard to gauge, says Ms Broadbent. “At the end of the day I can’t make retailers and processors pay more. I can only influence them by making the market more valuable. But if you get the value of a product up to a certain level, then retailers will start to worry about getting enough supplies.”

andrew.shirley@rbi.co.uk