2015 09 26 12.45.06 2

Building strong food brands – from a European perspective

By Bruce McCorkindale

AbacusBio farm consultant Bruce McCorkindale has recently travelled to Austria and Italy. Here he shares some interesting insights on their farm-to-plate value chain and what New Zealand food brands can learn from it.

Sheep are certainly a rarity in both countries. In Austria, most of the sheep I saw on tour were being used as mowers in orchards!

Compared to New Zealand, many farms in Austria are relatively small (as is the case for most parts of Europe) although there is a wide range of different farm types.

As such, farming is quite intensive and continues up to over 1000m above sea level.

The higher land is generally steep and with a long winter, so farmers rely a lot on supplements to get their cattle through winter.

As in New Zealand, rural innovation happens everywhere – with every piece of land used as effectively as they can.

Many farm enterprises include other on-site ventures as additional revenue – such as tourism attractions, contracting businesses, and forestry processing.

As soon as you get to easy land, the view changes and animals disappear, with the land being used for a myriad of crops.

Europeans generally have a very different attitude and culture towards food.

They value food quality and singularity (how differentiated a product is from others), as well as its provenance (where it comes from and how it is produced).

Being socially and environmentally aware, many affluent Europeans also place utmost importance on sustainable production systems, when it comes to making buying decisions.

Food marketers have actively capitalised on this traditional food cultural sensitivity to develop strategies for enhancing premiums in the European market.

European consumers have become more wary of marketing strategies that are not backed by verifiable data.

This unique culture and connection to food also helps explain why European taxpayers are more prepared to subsidise local farming.

This is driven from a desire to maintain a culture that involves land use, sustainable lifestyles, and food diversity.

There are numerous examples across Europe of innovative enterprises who have managed to produce strong brands with good scale built on both food singularity and provenance.

For example, La Vialla – located in Tuscany, Italy – is a family-owned farming business that produces a wide range of organic food and wine and distributes directly to consumers throughout Europe.

Having grown from small beginnings in 1978 to now covering over 3,300 acres, La Vialla has built a strong reputation for its negative carbon footprint and sustainable food production practices.

In addition to the diverse food portfolios, their effective land use and sustainable production efforts have reinvigorated a whole community that has seen growth in employment, business, and recreation activities (with a tourist accommodation site).

What could New Zealand food brands learn from this strong focus on a powerful provenance story?

Looking at Europe, the hurdle is not to simply carry out a study to develop a brand in order to drive product premiums.

What really matters is the need to produce food in a sustainable way, by focusing on developing a distinctive product, and then marketing it as a brand.

The strong passion for food among Europeans drives the need for food provenance branding as an essential marketing strategy for producers and suppliers.

From a New Zealand perspective, part of our provenance strategy is for our farmers to provide strong evidence around traceability (to record animal health treatments), declarations around animal welfare and management, and environmental protection (such as preventing water pollution in waterways), to support the branding strategies of meat, milk, and horticulture marketers.

Another interesting question would be whether New Zealand agriculture should develop regional brands, for example: Otago or Wairarapa lamb, which could potentially add additional net value over and above the New Zealand lamb brand.

Globally, affluent modern consumers now consider “the story behind a food” as pretty much the most influential factor of their purchase decisions – quite different from a commodity fast food culture where food is regarded as merely a source of fuel to top up our tanks.

To better build value for our New Zealand brands, we need to work together across the whole food value chain; farmers, processors, and suppliers all working hand in hand to tell a story. What is our story?