The long road back

Bernard Matthews is looking to reconnect with its farming heritage in a bid to put its recent troubles behind it. Ed Bedington reports

Bernard Matthews, once the darling of the poultry industry has found itself facing a tough time of late. The last few years have been something of a roller-coaster ride and are something the turkey giant is keen to put behind it. Having built its reputation off the back of its Norfolk-based farming roots, a series of disasters and attacks rocked the company to its core.

Having all but recovered from Jamie Oliver's high-profile pop at the company's Turkey Twizzlers product, Bernard Matthews (BM) was then knocked sideways by an outbreak of avian influenza (AI) at its Holton facility in Suffolk. However, that was only the start - a potential link to an outbreak in Hungary swung a spotlight on the fact that BM had interests in the country - a far cry from its image as a wholesome East Anglian brand.

Matt Pullen, marketing director, admits the Hungarian issue hit the business hard: "We were seen as deceitful and disingenuous and it taught us some hard lessons."

As a result, the company has been forced to retrench, rethink and now it is embarking on a massive relaunch in a bid to

re-establish its credibility as one of the UK's few meat brands.

Firmly at the heart of its relaunch is a return to the core values that helped establish the company in the first place. "We have to reconnect with our farming roots," says Pullen. "In the past, we've focused on the front end, but hold on, what's our biggest asset? Our farming. We're perceived as a processor or manufacturer now and we've lost that image of the chairman leaning on his gate, selling his wares."

To recapture that image the company has adopted a new brand identity "Bernard Matthews Farms", focusing on its ability to produce products from farm-to-fork. On top of this, from September 1, 2008, all Bernard Matthews branded turkey products will be made with 100% British turkey from its farms across East Anglia.

"If we're putting BM on-pack, people want to know it's British," says Pullen. "It's the single biggest thing people expect us to be; it's what we were and it's what we need to get back to being."

He says the company will be focusing on the Golden Norfolk Turkey across its entire, range, not just whole birds, which will help act as a short-cut for British.

Complexity has also been taken out of the operation - lines have been trimmed and whole areas, such as sandwiches and pastry, abandoned to focus on what is core to the company - championing British agriculture and delivering viable, innovative products to the consumer. "Sometimes less is more. We were trying to do it all - but we have to focus on what we're good at," says Pullen.

Another key change is the company is now listening to consumers: "We have to make products that people want. In the past we've been making products and then saying, 'Would you like to buy Mr Consumer?'. We need to get back to the business being driven by the consumer. We used to do that. Bernard Matthews had an innovative understanding of how he could help mums out."

A series of new product launches is now planned, with the first focusing on healthier 'better for you' frozen turkey products. These will be marketed under a new sub-brand 'Big Green Tick', which features products that are 70% lower in fat than similar products in the market.

Pullen says that throughout all its recent troubles, BM has received strong support from its customers. "We have a good relationship with the retailers and throughout the AI situation, the support we got from them was phenomenal. We have to pay that back, drive the business forward and bring growth back."

But having experienced a number of difficult years, can the company turn things around? Pullen thinks it can and says its time for a cultural change within BM: "We cannot be arrogant and we've been possibly guilty of that - as brands do when going through good times. Is the brand salvageable? Yes it is. Ten million households buy it, and that's huge. But it used to be more, so we have to rebuild trust and confidence

in people." l