Magazine article Marketing

One Man's Meat, Another Man's Poison

Magazine article Marketing

One Man's Meat, Another Man's Poison

Article excerpt

One man's meat, another's poison

A guerilla war for our hearts, minds and wallets is underway in schools, in the media and in the health service. It is, literally, a life and death struggle, with a dazed but huge Dad's Army of farmers, abattoir owners and butchers under siege from a stun grenade-laden brigade of the right-on Special Air Service.

Meat is Murder, say celebs from The Smiths to Linda McCartney. And Jolly Bad For You Too, chime assorted rent-a-medics. Dodging the flak from his bunker somewhere in Milton Keynes, a Canute-like Garry Dobbin - crazy name, crazy guy - is leading a brave rearguard action to turn the relentless anti-meat tide in his favour.

But if there has ever been a terribly good time to be marketing director of the Government's promotional quango the Meat and Livestock Commission (MLC), now is plain terrible. Meat will at best book you a premature stop at the knacker's yard through heart failure or, at worst, give you a disease which will eat your brain.

The death of Max the cat this time last year from bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) re-awakened fears that Mad Cow Disease, its more lurid monicker, could be transferred between species. Meat sales collapsed by one-third overnight. Latest figures suggest volume consumption, in a 16bn [pounds] industry, is 6% down on last year.

Dobbin has 80,000 farmers, 822 abattoir owners and 17,000 butchers breathing down his neck to do something, somehow, but fast, to counter the bad press and claw back slaughtered sales. But his is a uniquely conservative industry. Many butchers would rather fade and die (and 25% have since 1980) than cater for palates bored with their slabs of uninspiring flesh.

There is mutual suspicion between the MLC and its broad church of paymasters. "There's a general feeling that we are sitting on our backsides here spending their money and not doing very much," says Dobbin. And his view of them? "Traditional is the respectable word. Meat is just another food now. We have got to change if we are to maintain - or hold - our share."

The rest of the food industry isn't hanging around to find out if he succeeds. Unilever and United Biscuits are about to launch high-profile, heavily-supported veggie ranges. The Vegetarian Society is sending out 30 application forms every week to firms desperate to cash in and slap its V-sign on their non-meat lines. Over 2000 products from 200 companies - from Heinz Baked Beans to Gramma's Concentrated Pepper Sauce - now carry the symbol.

The extent of the meat industry's problems is crystallised in its Corporate Plan for 1991 to 1994, a frank internal agenda-setting document which Dobbin was quite happy to release to Marketing. The MLC's public relations department had an anxiety attack when it learned we had seen it.

First, the context. World meat production is high, too high. Europe is working to a surplus, and further cutbacks are inevitable. Producers' margins, already under severe pressure, are likely to be squeezed further still in the first half of the decade.

Some 50% of UK slaughterhouses will go bust over the next couple of years, says the Plan. They don't have the cash to meet higher standards demanded by a new EC quality mark for meat and meat products. Worse still, the report concedes, the industry is being painfully slow to implement the MLC's own "best production practice" guidelines, introduced at the end of 1989.

"The industry has not projected itself well enough in terms of image, of practices or through product presentation and consistent quality in a way which will guarantee positive consumer attitudes throughout the 90s," admits the Plan. "There are no simple public relations solutions."

What to do? There is a marketing morass to wade through, and resources will be the key. The MLC's precious promotions cash comes from statutory levies on producers and abattoir owners. …

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