Christmas could be a lean one for turkey tycoon Bernard Matthews. Perhaps unfairly, the best-known brand and largest producer of turkeys in Britain acts as the lightning conductor for the entire sector. And last week lightning struck in the form of the second outbreak of bird flu in less than a year.
No Bernard Matthews site has been affected by the latest outbreak of H5N1 in Norfolk and Suffolk, but it has hit the industry at the worst possible time - the all important Christmas season.
It is particularly bad news for Bernard Matthews, which will struggle to disassociate itself from the latest incident in the wake of the outbreak at its Holton plant in February. But it hasn't done itself any favours with poor PR, say industry and branding experts. Indeed, jokes one, the company has tended to behave more like an ostrich with its head in the sand than a turkey.
The February outbreak led to the culling of 160,000 turkeys and plunged the company £25.9m into the red after exceptional costs of £43.3m. Sales across the industry fell 20%. But even before that, things hadn't been on a sound footing at Bernard Matthews, according to accounts filed at Companies House, which show profits of £22.8m in 2005 had turned into a loss of £31.2m for 2006.
Today, it may take the number one and two slots in TNS's analysis of brands with its sliced cooked meat and turkey breast roast products. But even before the latest outbreak, turkey sales were weak, according to TNS Worldpanel, and they weren't helped by the relatively strong performance of other fresh proteins, particularly chicken, lamb and beef.
Despite ill health, Bernard himself still guides the board with an iron hand and still has an executive veto on all decisions. The recent resignation of chief executive Bart Dalla Mura was attributed to his frustration over the slow pace of change and lack of progress in modernising the company.
The company urgently needs to improve its PR handling, say experts. Unless Bernard Matthews takes authoritative steps to reinvigorate its brand and restore confidence, the whole industry will suffer, says Runey Gustafson, chief executive of Interbrand.
From footage of staff using a turkey as a baseball to Jamie Oliver's attack on Turkey Twizzlers and now avian flu, Bernard Matthews has had more than its fair share of PR disasters. But Gustafson claims Bernard Matthews has "made virtually no effort to address public concerns about bird flu or Turkey Twizzlers in its marketing".
"Customers have a strong sense of what is right and what is wrong and they look to the bestselling brand to set the pace. In a case like this there is no point just launching a few new products and tinkering with packaging.
Bernard Matthews insists it is taking steps to address public perception issues. On 7 December a £500,000 television campaign breaks to re-establish its Golden Norfolk Turkey as the 'centrepiece' of Christmas. The company has spent more than half a million pounds on the campaign. And it has also acknowledged the need for greater operational efficiencies, launching a cost-cutting programme that includes a redundancy programme as well as a salary and recruitment freeze.
However, a spokesman accepts the company may need the efforts of agencies such as the Food Standards Agency to reassure people that avian flu does not pose a risk if they cook birds properly.
The spokesman adds: "We are also introducing country-of-origin labelling on all our packs by the end of 2007 and we are moving towards providing predominantly more British turkey meat products." Next year, he says, there will be several "innovative and well-supported" product launches as well as more free-range offerings.
It could also be helped by consumer confidence holding up despite the latest avian flu crisis. The government's response to the outbreak in February had put in place measures that would reassure consumers, according to British Poultry Council spokesman Jeremy Blackburn.
"We fully expect sales to bounce back from this," he said. "In Britain, the consumer has a greater confidence and understanding of biosecurity and what we are doing than anywhere else in Europe."
Asked whether the latest outbreak would have a serious impact on sales, the Bernard Matthews spokesman replies: "We hope not." The full picture will become clearer over the next month - but it may be a while longer before the public views Bernard Matthews as 'bootiful' once more.n