parent baking cooking child family

The government is expected to publish its long-awaited white paper on the future of the BBC tomorrow – and there’s every reason for the food & drink industry to pay attention.

The white paper will outline the BBC’s remit for the next 10 years and thus set the direction for the home of some of the country’s most successful and influential food programmes. Whether it’s the homebaking craze sparked by The Great British Bake Off or Hugh’s War on Waste – what the BBC does with food often has a tangible, direct impact on the food & drink sector. And it could soon be doing a lot less with food than it has done to date.

Tomorrow’s white paper is set to put forward a radically new vision for what the BBC – as a publicly funded broadcaster – should and should not do, with the government’s focus very much on the ‘should not’ part of that equation.

Areas potentially up for the chop include the huge database of more than 11,000 recipes currently hosted on the BBC website, which could go as part of a drive to get the Beeb to excise “non-core” material and “soft news” from its sites (though recipes linked to recently broadcast programmes would still be allowed).

The proposals have sparked considerable controversy (there’s already a petition to save the BBC’s recipe archive), but what are the implications from an industry perspective?

Recipes are hugely important to anyone involved in the business of marketing food. They drive consumer engagement, highlight new usage occasions and can help increase basket size – a crucial consideration particularly in the context of online grocery shopping. And, of course, they are undeniably popular with consumers: over the past 10 years, “recipe” as a UK search term has tripled in volume. Little wonder, then, that major retailers, brands and food industry organisations are investing heavily in recipe content.

BBC blog infographic 1

With the presence of one of the UK’s most trusted recipe brands set to be diminished, these players will be eyeing up opportunities to pick up the slack. However, not everyone is well placed to do so. “The secret is volume,” says Rob Metcalfe of Richmond Towers. “As a consumer, you either rely on Google to steer you towards a recipe or go to a website confident that it will have something to suit your needs.”

Retailers could fill the gap, he suggests, but others should take a close look too. “There is an opportunity for brands and generic promoters, and it’s something we thought about several years ago at Richmond Towers when we realised how many hundreds of recipes, all with great photography, we had on file for a wide variety of current and former clients,” says Metcalfe. “And we will not be alone among agencies. So if someone was looking to create a new online recipe destination and sought the collaboration of PR agencies, there would be no shortage of content.”

This could be of particular interest to food brands, as these perform less well on online recipes than might be expected, says Michael Bennett of Pelican Communications. “I believe that’s because more and more people look at the mismatch of ingredients in their fridge or freezer and ask Google to suggest a recipe,” he says. “Brands need to reflect this in their online presence, and this means offering recipe ideas which may not include their products.”

BBC recipes fare incredibly well in Google searches, so anyone looking to steal traffic from BBC recipe sites post-cull will have to make search engine optimisation a priority. “If the BBC’s content is culled, it will open up an SEO bun fight for nearly every key food and recipe search term,” says Adam Smith, head of media strategy at Dunnhumby. ”This means that the main outcome will be a re-ordering of results among the other existing big players such as Jamie Oliver,, deliaonline etc. However, with such a dominant online leader being pulled from the summit, there will certainly be scope for a spread of other players, such as supermarkets, who have the investment and can potentially leverage complimentary web assets, to make an impact.”

However, ensuring the BBC’s recipe offering is replaced in some form is vital not just because of the marketing and SEO opportunities this opens up, believes Smith. He sees a real risk of some demographics becoming less engaged with food and cooking if the BBC archive is cut too harshly. “The BBC content cull risks creating a void at a critical point of entry into the food market, disproportionally impacting people such as students, the unemployed or low-income families that rely on free, impartial, accessible, simple guidance,” he warns. “Reducing the volume of trusted, accessible, free recipe content available will likely result in less cookery uptake.”

BBC recipe blog 2

Not that the BBC archive cull will necessarily lead to less BBC-branded recipe content. Assets like BBC Good Food – which are run by the BBC’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide – are likely to be unaffected by any attempts to curtail the BBC’s public-service remit. In fact, opportunities for food brands to associate themselves with BBC-branded content might even increase if BBC Worldwide-run properties end up being a greater focus for recipe content as a result of the remit review as – after all, BBC Worldwide is not bound by the same restrictions on advertising as its publicly funded parent.

And while the BBC’s food presence is big, there are already plenty of other free-to-use sources of recipes available. The major mults have done a great job of building up their recipe presence (Tesco’s Real Food website delivers nearly one million unique visitors a month, with “the highest engagement in terms of time on site of any UK food website”, says Smith at Dunnhumby, citing data from Comscore), while celebrities such as Nigella Lawson and Gordon Ramsey as well as the new crop of foodie influencers like Joe Wicks and Ella Woodward reach thousands of consumers directly using social media.

That is why some experts – like Dieter Lloyd of Pam Lloyd PR – believe the BBC recipe cull will have a less dramatic impact than has been suggested. “There is no slack and this change won’t create any,” he says. Bar a few exceptions – such as seasonal produce information – other sources already do pretty much exactly what the BBC recipe archive is doing, he adds.

Rather than worrying about replicating the BBC archive, brands and retailers should instead look to the future. For younger shoppers, used to discovering and sharing recipe inspiration through channels like Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, YouTube and Buzzfeed, the idea of a ‘one stop shop’ recipe archive like the BBC’s is arguably becoming less compelling. “They take their inspiration from Buzzfeed Proper Tasty – it’s food lifestyle brought to life,” says Lloyd, adding video content – rather than traditional websites – is an area retailers and brands should focus more of their recipe efforts on.

Research from YouTube and video analytics company Tubular shows the UK food industry is taking great strides on that front: the biggest YouTube food content creators are all major supermarket brands, and the UK is far ahead of other European countries when it comes to creating food video content (see pictures).

The loss of the BBC recipe archive will be mourned by many – but if retailers and brands are up for the challenge and use the opportunity to step up their efforts, consumers could soon enjoy even more engaging recipe content.