British-made products have long been associated quality and trust, but research suggests brands need to work harder to effectively market the advantages of buying British or consumers will simply opt for cheaper, imported alternatives.
Currently, just 51% of Brits say they prefer to eat food produced locally even if that means they have fewer items to choose from, which is well below the global average of 63% and the lowest figure from all 30 nations surveyed by market research firm Ipsos Mori.
But with Brexit looming, the variety of produce available on supermarket shelves could well decline, given the price of imported goods has been pushed up by sterling’s weakness and could rise further if new tariffs are introduced. The UK currently supplies about 50% of its own food and imports 30% from the EU, according to government data.
So with potentially fewer, less affordable choices, there may be more compelling reasons to buy British, which gives brands an opportunity to play up their British heritage.
One of those brands is Dairy Crest, which makes products such as Utterly Butterly, Country Life, Davidstow and Cathedral City. Its marketing director Lee Willett says he can’t base his assumptions on any “hard facts” but believes there might be a shift in Brits’ attitudes toward local goods post-Brexit.
“Brits are likely to support our own farmers over any other people, but [marketing Britishness] needs to be handled carefully because you don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, so you don’t want to go too hard on that bandwagon,” he says.
“What you can do is highlight your supply chain and highlight where you are supporting local farmers because there will be a shift and I think people will start moving toward those [local] products.”
Consumers tend to say they’re interested in British products when responding to a research document but are they as interested when they’re standing at fixtures comparing the prices of a commodity like butter or cheese?
Lee Willet, Dairy Crest
Reinforcing its commitment to British produce is something Morrisons is also keen to do. All the beef, lamb and fresh poultry it sells is British and two-thirds of what it sells overall is also produced in Britain, “so we have to play to our strengths and recognise that,” says CEO David Potts.
Brexit might have triggered uncertainty among consumers, but cost and convenience continue to dominate their purchasing decisions, coupled with the fact many varieties of fruit and vegetables cannot be grown in Britain’s climate, forcing consumers to opt for foreign produce.
But one thing remains clear: Britain is well behind the rest of the world when it comes to eating locally, meaning farmers and supermarket giants alike have plenty of work to do to enhance Brits’ enthusiasm for local products post-Brexit.
Last year, Morrisons lauched a TV ad that aimed to “show who Morrisons is” while highlighting the “close relationship” it has with suppliers and how most of the food it makes comes from locally sourced produce.
“[The campaign] brought to life the fact Morrisons has a lot of reach into British farming and it reminded both ourselves and everyone else that a lot of what we sell is British. We would always want to do more of that, and this year is probably a good time to do it,” Potts explains.
Similarly, discounter Aldi is not worried about the UK’s exit from the EU as more than three-quarters of its total sales come from products sourced from UK suppliers, putting it at a “real advantage”, according to the supermarket’s communications director Richard Thornton.
“Whatever happens in the future, we will be far less affected than retailers who rely more heavily on imported products,” he adds.
With so much uncertainty around Brexit, consumers are understandably lacking confidence as they wait to see what impact it might have on their wallets. More than two-thirds (67%) say they think the cost of food is going to get worse next year, according to the Ipsos Mori data, compared to 48% globally. Only 9% of Brits think it will get better.
Morrisons, which is second-biggest manufacturer of British food in the world behind 2 Sisters, is adamant it will continue to champion its British supply chain, with Potts indicating that products sourced in Britain such as its beef, lamb and poultry won’t see a price hike due to Brexit.
He says Morrisons has a long history of being a “price fighter and value-for-money retailer”, meaning it has to work hard to not pass price increases on to consumers – a challenge considering there are vulnerabilities with certain imports such as dairy.
“A lot of butter still comes through New Zealand, Ireland and Holland. But we do sell British butter as well. Consumers make these choices every day so price remains a very important determinant for consumers,” he says.
Communicating Britishness over cost and convenience
Households earning less than £20,000 a year are less inclined (44%) to eat local than households earning more than £55,000 (61%), suggesting the cost of purchasing local goods could certainly play a part.
So convincing consumers to opt for British products over cheaper or more convenient options is clearly going to be a challenge for many brands, including Dairy Crest.
“Consumers tend to say they’re interested in British products when responding to a research document but are they as interested when they’re standing at fixtures comparing the prices of a commodity like butter or cheese?” Willett asks.
“That’s why emotive communication is more persuasive than purely shouting about Britishness.”
Willett uses Country Life butter as an example of doing “something different” by communicating locality and triggering an emotional connection with consumers without lecturing them.
“We put a Union Jack on the packaging behind the Country Life logo to drive Britishness, partly because [many of] our competitors in the butter sector [source from Ireland]. It worked from a UK perspective and got people wanting to support British farmers and they still do, and we definitely saw an uplift from that,” he says.
Dairy Crest also recently signed a deal with English Heritage for Country Life. As part of the partnership, the brand will run a promotional two-for-one entry offer across Country Life packs, which offers shoppers free entry with every purchase of a full-price adult ticket to historic sites run by English Heritage in England and Cadw in Wales.
Willett explains this is a great opportunity for the brand to make a connection with customers in an engaging way without preaching to them about Britishness.
“That’s what consumers in the UK care about, historical sites. And that’s what it’s about, matching yourself up with caring about what they care about. That’s a great way of doing it that doesn’t come across as too ‘lecturey’,” Willett says.
Another brand using its British roots to convince consumers to pay a little more for locally produced products is crisp company Tyrrells. All of its potatoes are locally sourced and transformed into hand cooked crisps at its Herefordshire farm.
[The campaign] brought to life the fact that Morrisons has a lot of reach into British farming and it reminded both ourselves and everyone else that a lot of what we sell is British.
David Potts, Morrisons
Tyrrells marketing director Sarah Lawson says its target consumers aren’t driven by price but are passionate about quality and authenticity.
“They like to try to buy British where possible and recognise sometimes you have to pay a little bit more to get this. Obviously, we must maintain and strive to grow our market share but not at the expense of devaluing both the brand and the marketplace,” she says.
“The relationship we have with our farmer suppliers is very important to us. It’s our supply chain that make us different and that in itself has a real value that our core demographic of customers really buy into.”
The crisp manufacturer highlights its commitment to Britishness by telling its story through social media but claims the “proof is in the pudding”.
“Last year we went from field to store in 52 minutes – from harvesting the potatoes in a field near to Tyrrells Court Farm, to washing, slicing then hand-cooking to packing and delivering into our local village deli in under an hour. You can’t get more local than that,” Lawson says.
“We wouldn’t be doing our job properly if weren’t actively creating opportunities that celebrate our Englishness.”
Shifting from British to regional
Brits might be reluctant to purchase locally grown food because the UK lacks a strong cultural food identity, according to Ipsos senior research director Alex Baverstock, who says people in countries like Italy, India and France, which have strong national and regional food cultures and identities, “all show a much higher preference for locally produced foods”.
This is also evident at a regional level within the UK. Those in the south-west of the country are more inclined to eat local produce (59%), as are those in the north (57%), in comparison to Londoners (50%).
Fittingly, Willett believes the next step after Britishness will be regionality. Dairy Crest highlights regionality through its premium cheese range Davidstow which, as the name suggests, is sourced and produced in the Cornwall village.
“Not only is that a story about Britishness, it’s a story about regionality – Cornish milk into a Cornish brand,” Willett says.
“This might be the next step after Britishness; we’ve seen it already with Sharps and a couple of beer brands, almost going toward regionality. Above and beyond it being British, it will be about what region it is from and how you’re supporting that regional message.”
Tyrrells also benefits from being based in a rural area, as it actively champions the perks of locally sourced products, meaning there has been “enormous” buy-in from the local community.
“This [buy-in] spread very quickly, as our core messages appealed to consumers’ desire for greater transparency in the food chain. We’re proud to still maintain those principals and quality credentials because that’s what’s been key to attracting such an incredibly loyal customer base,” Lawson says.
As politicians scramble to come to decisions about Brexit, uncertainty remains but beneath the chaos this could be an opportunity for local producers to tap into a growing sense of loyalty to home-grown products.