Another day and yet another company has been drawn into the horsemeat scandal that has rocked Europe. On Tuesday, it was announced that Nestle, the world’s biggest food company, had removed beef pasta meals from shelves in Italy and Spain after tests revealed traces of horse DNA.
Headlines in the UK have certainly been dominated by this story for over a month and there appears to be no end in sight as more and more information becomes available. The dramatic increase in the number of searches being made on the term ‘horesemeat’, as on the below graph clearly demonstrates the public interest!
The main discussion seems to centre around two main issues. Firstly, people’s personal preferences around what meat they choose to eat. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, there is the issue over consumers being unaware of what they have been sold, which undermines their belief and trust in the food they buy and the brands that both manufacture and sell the food.
It’s fair to say a number of brands have lost consumer confidence over the last few weeks; Tesco, Burger King and Findus to name but a few. One recent article even goes as far as to state it is not that brands have been damaged (perhaps some permanently) by this scandal but the very concept of branding itself.
In the past, consumers placed their faith in the fact that it was a trusted brand they were purchasing food from, and therefore a reliable source. It now appears that none of these brands were actually aware of what was in their products, leaving them unable to generate any faith amongst consumers that they should have trust in the brand. Simply put, if those brands in question are unaware of what is going into the production of the food they sell to consumers, how on earth can they expect consumers to have any faith in them?
The Biggest Losers
There have been several companies that have been at the heart of the scandal. Of the hardest hit segments, it is probably supermarkets that are feeling the brunt of the consumer backlash within the UK. In part, this is due to the fact that this is where the story first came to light, but primarily it’s due to the number of products and indeed supermarkets that have been involved in the situation.
Of those supermarkets that have been at the centre of the controversy, it is Tesco that has fared the worst. Their Buzz rating (a net balance of negative and positive comments consumers have heard about a brand), has seen scores tumble from a score of 0.66 on January 11th (ahead of the contamination story) to -31.62 on February 12th. This is a rather impressive drop of over 32 points in just one month.
Tesco has also been hit with an influx of consumer criticism, most notably via social media sites due to its mis-management of the situation. It’s fair to say that whatever the excuse, (apologies if I don’t buy into the official line of we couldn’t stop the automatic tweet) making light of the situation on the day the story broke was not a good move.
Findus, another brand that has been at the heart of this scandal has also fallen foul of misunderstanding social media and the reach that it has. When they released the below statement, in which they took no accountability for the issues and actually tried to shift blame on a third party instead, again they felt the public backlash.
“We understand this is a very sensitive subject for consumers and we would like to reassure you we have reacted immediately. We do not believe this to be a food safety issue. We are confident that we have fully resolved this supply chain issue.”
Surely, brands in the midst of a public relations crisis need to learn to step up to the plate (so to speak). We no longer live in a world where yesterdays’ news is used to wrap up your fish and chips and quickly forgotten. Instead, we live in a world where information is readily available at your fingertips and there is no sell by date on content.
It’s fair to say that in addition to the clearly demonstrated loss in faith in many household brands, the sheer cost implications that these companies will face in terms of trying to mitigate the damage that has been done is going to be considerable. If you think back a few years to the Perrier scandal, it’s probably safe to say that the company never truly recovered.
And the Winners Are!
Whilst there have certainly been far more brands that have lost consumer confidence, there are some companies that have seen their fortunes change for the better!.
Morrisons was one of the first brands to realise the potential in this space, and launched full page colour press adverts highlighting their use of British beef within a couple of days of the story initially breaking.
Whilst taking an obvious moral high ground and clearly pointing out the difference between themselves and competitors, initial results have also demonstrated that this is a tactic that is working for them.
According to one report, Morrisons has seen an 18% rise in the sale of non-frozen meat products since horse DNA was first identified in Tesco value beef burgers. According to a company spokesperson “fresh beef burger sales have jumped 50%, fresh pork sales are up 124%, beef mince is up 21% and lamb rose 15% over the past two weeks, compared with last month.”
Compare this with a poll by Retail Week magazine that found that 45% of shoppers would avoid the meat aisles of the chains found to be selling horsemeat labeled as beef.
Morrisons sources meat through a variety of local farm communities, which means the company has closer knowledge of their supply chain, reportedly tracing their produce ‘from field to fork’, unlike other large supermarket chains! During the horsemeat scandal, they have simply had to remove the branded products they sell from companies such as Findus.
By comparison, many of the other supermarket chains within the UK have taken to advertising non-beef products. Aldi are featuring 100% pure British fresh chicken and pork, highlighting that this produce has earned the ‘Red Tractor Symbol’ thereby demonstrating the necessary standard of animal welfare and traceability in their press adverts.
Others, including Tesco, have run extensive advertising throughout the crisis as a means of apology to the British public and to try to help restore a level of faith in the British meat industry.
It has also been reported that independent butchers and farm shops in some areas have seen a 75% increase in sales following the horsemeat scandal. As an avid believer in buying local and a regular at my local and trusted butcher, this increase in trade can only be a good thing.
If there is to be a positive outcome from this, it must be to see the small independent butchers finally see an increase in trade after suffering during the recession. In a time where consumers are seeing budgets stretched and the cost of living increase, the phrases ‘you get what you pay for’ and ‘less is more’ ring truer than ever. I for one, would rather eat less meat of a higher quality than be inundated with deals whereby you can buy frozen lasagne for 99p.