Bernard Matthews, the UK turkey business, has taken a battering over the past few years. From the fall-out over Jamie Oliver’s push to improve school dinners to the outbreak of bird flu at the group’s turkey farm in Norfolk, the company moved from one PR catastrophe to the next and consumers began to turn away from this icon of British food. Last week, Bernard Matthews relaunched its brand with a new look and new message. Katy Humphries spoke with marketing director Matthew Pullen on how the company intends to update its image and win back the once-loyal UK consumer.

j-f: The relaunch of the Bernard Matthews brand is designed to help the company overcome some recent setbacks. How badly did Jamie Oliver’s school dinners campaign hurt Bernard Matthews’ image?

Pullen: I don’t really think going over old ground on Twizzlers is that important. It is worth remembering the last pack of Twizzlers we sold was nearly three years ago. What is important is that we have spent a lot of time talking and listening to consumers since January 2007, and our focus now is back on using British turkey meat in the Bernard Matthews brand from our farms in East Anglia, making products like the new range of Golden Norfolk cooked meats and the new Big Green Tick frozen range that meet the needs of consumers today and championing British agriculture and farming. All of these are the things that really matter, as we look forward not back.

j-f: Another incident that had a negative impact on Bernard Matthews was the 2007 outbreak of avian influenza at your Norfolk turkey factory. At the time, Bernard Matthews was quite heavily criticised for its reaction. Could the company have managed the situation better?

Pullen: We were rightly very focused on containing and then eradicating the disease from our farm so that it did not spread. We did this very successfully as evidenced in the final report from Defra. Did we take learnings from the way we handled the media? Yes. But lets remember there was an incredible media frenzy that few companies would have been able to handle. Hopefully the approach we are taking going forward reflects the learnings we have taken on board.

j-f: In 2004, before the Twizzlers debacle, Bernard Matthews’ profits totalled GBP40m. This had fallen to GBP22m by 2006 and in 2007 you posted your first loss for 34 years. Have sales continued to fall in 2008?

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Bernard Matthews marketing director, Matthew Pullen

Pullen: Sales in two out of our three categories have recovered very well. Sales of products like Golden Drummers and Turkey Escalopes are very nearly back to levels pre the events of January 2007 and as a company we sold more whole turkeys, crowns and joints for Christmas 2007 than the previous year. Only cooked meats sales have recovered more slowly than we would have expected which is why we are launching a new range of Golden Norfolk turkey products this autumn.

j-f: When is Big Green Tick set to launch?

Pullen: Big Green Tick is set to launch in August in some stores and rolls out nationwide in September. It will be available in the major multiples and through convenience outlets. We’ll be launching advertising in mid-September, including national press, poster and TV. The campaign will run through September, October and November. We are also looking at the web and digital communication. We are rebranding our website in September because this is becoming increasingly important to our target audience. Mums will be able to come to our website and check facts about our products. Families are our core target audience and they will always be at the heart of the brand.

j-f: You are introducing a number of healthier products that are aimed at addressing the concerns of today’s consumers; are you doing anything else to make the brand relevant?

Pullen: Our new brand identity aims to reconnect with our British farming roots…We spent a lot of time talking to our consumers to understand what they really want from our brand. Our Britishness and traceability are important. Golden Norfolk tells consumers exactly what they need to know about the product: it’s British and traceable – coming from Norfolk – and the ‘Golden’ was really a statement about taste and quality.

Heath was also a growing concern for consumers and that was something we wanted to address. We spoke to nutritionalists who told us that there is nothing nutritionally wrong with our current range, and a lot of consumers love the taste of our Turkey Drummers and have no problem eating them. But there are some people who looked at our long-standing favourites and said “that’s not for me”. Our Big Green Tick range is designed to appeal to this group: people who are concerned about the amount of salt and saturated fat they are eating.

j-f: Has price positioning been an issue – will you be charging more of a premium?

Pullen: The key thing is that we offer a range of products to suit different budgets. This is something the retailers do very well: ‘good, better, best’ if you will. With the range we have now in cooked meats you can pay more for free range if you like, but you can also pay less for ‘good’ products like our wafer thin turkey. Golden Norfolk fits in the middle of these and if you are a mum looking to fill a bunch of sandwiches this could be what you are looking for. The product launches and rebranding are not about trying to shift the brand to premium; it’s more to do with getting back to our roots as an everyday, mid-market brand.

j-f: You are placing a lot of emphasis on ‘Britishness’. Why?

Pullen: From listening and talking to consumers we know that Britishness is very important to them and when a brand like Bernard Matthews has invested 50 years in becoming a household name on the basis of being British it is key that we return to these strengths.

j-f: Why has the perception of Bernard Matthews as a top British brand been eroded?

Pullen: This came in the aftermath of the avian influenza outbreak when it came to light that the business used a small amount of Hungarian meat – 2% – to meet demand. When you have … told consumers you are a British brand, an icon of British food if you will, [then] when it came out that foreign meat was used, consumers felt we were being disingenuous.

j-f: Does the Bernard Matthews brand name still have the power it once did?

Pullen: For many yes, for others they need to have their confidence and trust restored. This is what the relaunch is aiming to do.

j-f: Are these steps the first phase of a longer-term recovery plan, or do you believe they will be enough to undo the damage done over the past few years?

Pullen: This is all part of repositioning our business for growth but we are realistic. We know rebuilding trust does not happen overnight, it takes time.