The organic sector is launching an all-out assault on the mainstream as dairy supplier Yeo Valley unveils its first-ever primetime TV campaign. CEO Tim Mead tells Rob Brown how organic has reached critical mass and is on the verge of cracking the mainstream

Forget Yeo Valley. Tonight the organic dairy supplier will become 'Yo Valley' as a posse of rapping farmers swaggers on to the screens of 12 million viewers of The X Factor.

Not only does this two-minute primetime commercial represent Yeo's TV debut and kickstart a £5m campaign for the family business, it also marks the beginning of the biggest-ever marketing push organic food has ever seen.

The next two years are crucial to the organic food industry, with marketing spend on organic products set to soar to an all-time high, according to Yeo CEO Tim Mead. "We're spending a lot of money, Waitrose is spending a lot of money with its Duchy brand, which is fantastic, the Organic Trade Board has secured money from about 50 producers and retailers for a generic campaign, and the Organic Milk Suppliers Cooperative (OMSCo), which we buy all our milk from, will be running its own generic campaign."

And boy do they need to. From a peak of £1.1bn in 2008, total organic food sales have fallen to just £901m this year [Kantar Worldpanel 52w/e 16 May] as consumers rein in their weekly organic spend.

Yeo's sales dipped slightly in 2009 but the company says it is now back in growth, with sales expected to hit £119m for the year. That's nearly double the £60m the company turned over in 2004. Yeo's trend-bucking strategy has been to convince shoppers that organic is affordable, a message backed up in June with the launch of its Pots range, priced on a par with non-organic competitors.

Its new campaign represents the first real effort to move organic on to the daily shopping list of the masses. But what makes now the time for Yeo to make its move and how likely is it to succeed?

One thing's for sure the motives run far deeper than a desire to get down with the kids. "But I do get 'cool dad' status, which is pretty important," says the father of four. He's dressed similarly to the hip young farmers on the ad in casual white shirt and multipocketed waistcoat but he confesses his first choice for music for the ad was punk rock rather than rap (Into the Valley by The Skids to be precise). He's clearly proud of the ad, which he's just shown on an iPad, smiling broadly throughout. But there is a serious point to all this hip-hop posturing.

"This is about making organic accessible for the mainstream," he says. "The X Factor was just there to be utilised."

In the short term, Mead has set his sights on doubling Yeo's share of the yoghurt category to 10% in the next three years. He's hopeful that the new campaign complete with bespoke packs bearing The X Factor logo and offering two pairs of VIP tickets to the show's final and a range of online activities will help Yeo net a further 3.5 million customers.

In music as in business, timing is everything. And Mead says the time is now ripe for putting a heftier marketing budget behind organic. Since the formation of OMSCo in 1994, annual organic milk production has risen from just four million litres to about 500 million. Organic milk production in the UK has reached critical mass, meaning that Yeo now has the raw ingredients necessary to more than meet existing and future consumer demand.

"You don't spend the kind of money we are spending if you've only got five million litres of milk," says Mead. "We've come to a crunch point where we are trying to convince people to buy lines produced in a more sustainable way because now we have the manufacturing facilities and the milk available. We haven't spent huge amounts in the past, basically because the milk wasn't available. You can't market it if you haven't got it."

Recent activity among Yeo's competition has made its marketing push even more timely. In July, Rachel's Yeo's closest competitor in the organic yoghurt sector was bought from US company Dean Foods by Lactalis in a deal Mead describes as a "shocker", given the gulf that now exists between the brand's cutesy image and its ownership by a French dairy giant.

The acquisition gives Yeo the opportunity to cement its credentials in consumers' minds as a British-owned family producer with strong links to the countryside that Mead's forebears have farmed for the past 500 years.

Hence the television commercials, which feature tweed-clad rappers strutting around the family farm, looking "dirt in their caps and shirts" and "representing for the West so hard it hurts". The campaign is backed up online with interviews featuring Mead and his 72-year-old mother Mary, who still manages the farm. Another advert is set to Ian Dury's Reasons to be Cheerful a track more in line with Mead's own musical tastes pushing the message: 'Healthy land, equals healthy plants, equals healthy animals, equals healthy you.'

Yeo believes the campaign will tap into the groundswell of public opinion behind the growing "sustainability" movement. And it's not greenwash, insists Mead. The campaign, and the efforts being taken by other bodies such as the Organic Trade Board and OMSCo, are part of a clarion call that Mead says has been a long time coming.

"Fifty years ago there were 150,000 dairy farmers today there are 15,000. We need a call to say that we need to look after our countryside, the people who live in this country and the people who want communities in this country.

"If we have more of these 'super dairies' there would probably only be 1,000 dairy farms. Our dairy farmers are supporting entire networks in our countryside. Does anyone in government get that? I very much doubt it."

The government and other bodies should be doing more to promote sustainable farming methods, says Mead. Last year the government pledged more than £1bn in support for energy efficiency and renewable energy initiatives and Wrap continues to receive millions in taxpayers' cash each year. Worthy causes, of course, but the government should also be supporting schemes to ensure the sustainablility and security of British food supply, he argues.

"The responsibility lies with the government and it has been absent for the past 30 years," he says. "We need leadership from the government and industry bodies. The National Farmers' Union is a trade body that has a responsibility to look at sustainable methods. But if anyone should be promoting this, it's the government. I think the government sometimes forgets that it should govern and it should issue directions."

Mead rails against the plans for an 8,100-cow supersized dairy in Nocton, Lincolnshire, believing it would set a dangerous precedent not only would the proliferation of such dairies drive thousands of smaller farmers out of business and heap yet more misery on the countryside, it would tie more of our dairy industry to fluctuating oil and agrochemical markets. There's nothing sustainable about that, he argues.

"Nocton would rely on grain and maize grown using artificial fertilisers and transported to the cows," he explains. "It would be based on very expensive oil and very expensive distribution. If anyone wants to argue that we need these farms to feed the growing population, come to our farm and we'll show them that we're producing food sustainably and more healthily by not using agro-chemicals and paying money to multinationals. Our cows have higher yields than non-organic cows."

Of course, consumers often have to pay for a clearer conscience and perceptions of price hampered organic food as the recession took hold, as evidenced by Yeo's own sales dip in 2009.

Yeo responded to the challenge by promoting its products as affordable, everyday items. Mead concedes that his offerings are still at the pricier end of the spectrum, although there are of course non-organic products out there that command a heftier price.

Organic enjoys a degree of insulation from the tumults of international oil prices, adds Mead, so it need not always be more expensive than non-organic. "It's a perfectly valid argument to say that, depending on the future price of oil, people producing food that's not reliant on fertilisers and transportation around the world will one day have a product produced more cheaply than those who rely on oil," he elaborates.

Brand extensions will drive some of Yeo's future growth, with granola-topped yoghurts expected to make an appearance in the not-too-distant future. The company is also gearing up for a roll-out of its frozen yoghurt and ice cream already a huge hit with punters at the Glastonbury Festival, of which Yeo is a long-time supporter into other multiples. The products are currently only stocked by Waitrose.

With brand behemoths such as Danone and Müller standing in Yeo's path, Mead doesn't underestimate the enormity of the task that lies ahead, but he's confident that the company will emerge triumphant thanks to its USP. "We're offering people sustainably produced, British-made products that taste great and aren't expensive. Why wouldn't you buy that?" says Mead.

He might have a point. British, sustainable, quality and inexpensive few companies can tick all these boxes. His argument hammered home, Mead settles back into his chair and quips with a smile: "Now that is a rap."

Tim Mead snapshot
Age: 47
Career: Before joining the family business 23 years ago, Mead worked as an accountant in Croydon. Since the death of dad Roger in a farm accident in 1990, mum Mary has managed the farm while Mead has looked after the manufacturing side of the business. Today he lives on the farm with his family.
To relax: Mead likes to spend time with his four kids, aged between seven and 15, at the family holiday home in Woolacombe, North Devon.

Hip hop may be the soundtrack for the new ad but the sounds of The Clash, The Jam and The Skids remain Mead's favourites. Glastonbury Festival - where Yeo Valley has held a stall for several years - is "the best week-long party you will ever go to", he claims.

Getting down on the farm
The only caps these rappers are busting are of the flat, tweed variety. And they're definitely more "Oo Aaar" than "Woo Har".

But Yeo Valley CEO Tim Mead chose rap as the music of choice for the new campaign because the style "is very good for telling stories and it's very modern".

It also suggests that the company doesn't have any qualms about being laughed at. Mead confesses that his own choice of soundtrack for the commercial, which was produced by BBH, was Into the Valley by The Skids, a punk classic from his youth.

However, with Yeo targeting 3.5 million extra customers with the campaign and aiming to take "organic to the mainstream", reaching out to a youthful audience was a priority. So the company got music video producer Julien Lutz aka Little X on board for the shoot, which took place down on the Mead family's 1,500 acres of Somerset farmland.

If anyone could lend some street cred to the ad it would be Lutz, who's worked with luminaries of the rap world such as Ice Cube, Sean Paul (aka Puff Daddy) and Kanye West.

The result is a tongue-in-cheek treat, extolling the virtues of organic farming, painting pictures of shining wind turbines and showing how sustainable farming is not as some might believe at odds with modern farming techniques. As the rappers themselves may have put it, Mead says that the ad "shows we're doing it for real".