Green shoots

Selling Irish food abroad should be easy given our lush landscape, but it does require a considered approach that takes in local sensibilities


For a food company, having success in the Irish market is just one part of the jigsaw. To truly achieve scale, it has to position itself in international markets. But this can mean a serious assessment of a company’s marketing and branding strategy in order to ensure that it is appropriate for the market the company is looking to target.

An obvious choice is to play up a company’s Irishness, given the country’s reputation in the agri-food sector. However, as Tara McCarthy, a director with Bord Bia says, it all depends on the product you are selling. A product like Goodfella’s pizza is not particularly enhanced by being Irish but Kerrygold butter on the other hand very much plays up its Irishness.

“It varies quite a lot as to whether or not consumers assess provenance in that category,” she says.

Moves abroad may also necessitate a change in branding. When porridge maker Flahavan’s, for example, started to sell in the UK, it launched its product in a blue and red canister. However, competitor Quaker then contacted the company to draw its attention to the fact that Flahavan’s product looked too much like Quaker’s did. So the Irish food company changed the colouring on its boxes to green and red.

A vital part of any company’s research before it exports is to consider how the consumer will use the products – what works in Ireland may not necessarily translate internationally. When Kerry Group, for example, was getting ready to export its cheese strings product to France, it discovered a challenge in that French kids don’t take lunch boxes to school, they use the school canteen instead.

So the group opted to sell the product as an after-school snack or gouter instead, changed its name to Ficello (or string), and replaced the cheddar content with the more familiar Emmental. “You have to localise the product to that market,” says McCarthy, noting that while consumers typically like hot curries in Ireland and the UK, continental Europeans favour sweeter ones.

Sustainability and the “green” qualities of a product have also become vital branding tools when selling Irish products aboard.

Maeve Henchion, the head of the department of agri-food business and spatial analysis at Teagasc’s food research centre, says, “Sustainability initiatives have become more than just a PR tool for companies; they are becoming an essential part of the supply-chain process.”

It’s no surprise then that food promotional bodies are actively trying to position Irish food companies in this light.

“It’s a source of differentiation,” says Henchion. “A lot of countries can produce beef to a particular specification but what do we do that’s different to them?”

In 2012 Bord Bia launched its Origin Green initiative, which is “essentially a voluntary sustainability programme that the entire food and drink industry is signing up to,” according to Una Fitzgibbon, the marketing director at Bord Bia.

The environmentally friendly charter offers companies a “brand platform” for communicating the green sustainability credentials of that industry and draws on Ireland’s very strong “green” reputation overseas, says Fitzgibbon.

So far, 300 Irish companies have registered their interest in the initiative and 53 of those companies have submitted Origin Green sustainability plans. There are now 40 verified member companies. According to Fitzgibbon, these member companies represent more than 65 per cent of exports.

Already Origin Green member companies can incorporate its message into their own marketing material and the initiative is set to step up a notch in June, when Bord Bia will launch a new media plan aimed at international trade customers.

“This new creative will move us from current messaging around ‘the promise’ of what Origin Green can give to our customers to the ‘verified reality’ of what we can deliver our customers,” says Fitzgibbon.

The initiative has paid off for some companies already, with one member company winning a Belgian retail account on the back of it and another winning tenders for food service provision in the UK because of its involvement.

“What companies are finding is that it’s changing the nature of the conversation with their key customers, assisting them to develop longer term relationships and assisting others win new business,” says Fitzgibbon.

But such an approach can have its challenges. As Henchion notes, it’s all about “credence attributes” whereby the consumer has to believe what you are saying.

So, for example, if you are buying beef because of its red colour, you can see that for yourself. “But when you’re promoting something based on its green credentials, they have to trust you when you say it,” says Henchion. “[The] first thing is trust – how do you accurately measure to consumers it’s environmentally friendly?”

In this respect, Teagasc is trying to bring some measurement to the initiative and is trying to come up with a wish-list of steps that can be taken and then measured on farms on a long-term basis. These can then be used by individual companies in their marketing. When you are gearing up to sell internationally, McCarthy advises that food companies do better with a bit of focus.

“Concentrate your efforts quite specifically; going in with 30 different products and not knowing what you’re doing with all of them won’t help,” she says.

“It’s really about studying the market before you go,” she says. “You can only make one first impression.”