Hardly any brands have managed to crack fresh meat, fish or poultry. Julia Glotz investigates why – and finds out where future opportunities might lie

Fresh food has traditionally been a tricky hunting ground for brands.

The highly commoditised nature of many fresh food staples, after all, means adding value and delivering meaningful NPD the bread and butter of brands can be a lot more difficult in fresh than in other grocery categories.

Yet many fresh food aisles have been transformed by brands in recent years. In dairy, for example, the likes of Dairy Crest, Arla and Robert Wiseman have taken humble commodities and turned them into multimillion-pound brands.

In fresh meat, fish and poultry, however, the impact of brands remains limited. Sure, there are the sausage brands industry stalwarts Richmond and Wall’s as well as the new crop of premium bangers such as Debbie & Andrew’s and specialists such as Bernard Matthews Farms and Gressingham Foods, which have successfully carved out niches within the category.

But a mainstream fresh beef, pork or chicken brand able to give own-label a run for its money? Nowhere to be found. Over the past year, brands accounted for less than 5% of the £1.8bn in beef sales, with just 5.5% of value sales in lamb coming from brands [Kantar Worldpanel 52w/e 20 Mar 2011]. Pork and chicken fared only marginally better, with brands accounting for a respective 8.7% and 11.1% of total value sales.

One reason brands have struggled to make inroads is that, unlike other categories, value in fresh meat is created not by the unique capabilities of one manufacturer but in how the entire supply chain comes together, says Nick Townend, Sainsbury’s category manager for meat, fish and poultry. And it’s clearly the supermarkets that can most easily take ownership of this chain, he says. “Retailers have developed the relationships that support these customer propositions and have associated the freshness, quality, integrity and value with their brands.”

Margin is also an issue. Meat has high input costs compared with the final value of the product at retail, meaning adding margin to a fresh meat product to allow sufficient promotion and marketing is difficult, says Andrew Mclay, a consultant at Promar International. “This is particularly the case if there are no real tangible differences between a branded product and an unbranded one,” he adds.

It’s a point echoed by Paul Burch, Moy Park accounts director for Ireland, who says the fresh meat category is “fairly uncompetitive” for brands. “High market entry costs and low profit margins make it difficult for new brands to enter the market.” Successful meat, fish and poultry companies also tend to have to focus on volume, Burch says, making it difficult to retain a mindset for brands and innovation.

Recent input cost inflation has not helped. “With everyone so preoccupied with arguing about what to do with rising input costs, you have to ask if the sector has dropped the ball on innovation,” says one pork executive. “Perhaps we are spending far too much time on arm-wrestling over price and not enough on adding value.”

Then there’s consistency. Brands depend on being able to promise consumers a certain level of quality every time they buy the product, but meat can vary greatly in eating quality from one animal to the next, says Mclay. This is a particular problem for beef and sheepmeat, he points out.

“Industries such as pork and poultry have limited variability by developing large-scale producers and very focused breeding programmes, aimed at getting bigger chickens or pigs that provide better meat. In contrast, the red meat industry is full of small farmers, all with their own breeding programmes, methods and objectives.”

To make matters worse, any fresh meat, fish or poultry brand has to contend with consumers getting involved in the production process by (often inexpertly) handling and cooking the product at home. This can further reduce consistency and create potential difficulties for brands, says Mclay. “In general, a variable product is bad for a brand if the experience is bad, people know not to choose that brand again!”

New technological developments should increasingly help brands overcome these limitations. Genetics, for example, can help farmers ensure better and more consistent eating quality. In addition, new packaging innovations, including saline pumping to keep meat moist for longer, could help ensure the product eats well even if consumers have less than perfect cooking skills, according to Mclay. “This should mean there is more opportunity to develop and promote fresh meat brands at a retail or foodservice level,” he says.

Error-free cooking
Many recent branded launches have focused on minimising variability by making it as easy as possible for the consumer to prepare the product successfully, with

Birds Eye’s Bake to Perfection a popular template. The frozen range considered by many to be one of the most successful branded meat, fish & poultry launches of recent times responded to consumers’ fears of not being able to cook fish or poultry correctly by putting the protein in a sealed, oven-ready bag, along with a complementary sauce and seasoning.

Tesco has been particularly keen to embrace similar, branded concepts in chilled, with brands such as Seachill’s The Saucy Fish Co. and Tulip’s The Gammon Company both of which are currently stocked exclusively in Tesco acting, in effect, as extensions of the supermarket’s own-label offering. Tesco’s appetite for branded meat products also extends to frozen, where it has snapped up every single product launched by German processed meat brand Tillman’s in the UK to date.

“Tesco is very much taking the branded route,” says Simon Smith of Seachill. Sainsbury’s, on the other hand, makes clear that own-label remains its absolute priority, with category manager Nick Townend saying he is focused on delivering innovation through Sainsbury’s Taste The Difference, Be Good To Yourself, basics and standard tiers. “A tremendous amount of innovation on freshness, quality and integrity is being introduced to our customers through these brands,” he says.

Smith at Seachill says retailer interest in branded convenience formats is high at the moment, and Seachill has been approached with requests to extend The Saucy Fish Co concept to other proteins, including fresh meats. Seachill isn’t tempted to stray outside its core fish expertise, he stresses, but the company is exploring launching a range of standalone sauces that could complement meat dishes under the name The Saucy Food Co. “We trialled the concept with Tesco last year and are now exploring how to take this forward,” Smith says.

Protein-and-sauce combos aside, interest in premium sausages is still strong and offers potential for growth for brands. Brands such as the Vion-owned Debbie & Andrew’s, Porkinsons and The Black Farmer continue to command good amounts of shelf space, and innovation in the category remains high. Earlier this month, for example, Asda started listing Mr Singh’s Bangras, a range of Indian-inspired premium sausages made with spices such as cardamom and cloves.

The big but as yet unexplored opportunity for brands is in branded fresh chicken products, believes Burch at Moy Park. “There are already a number of brands competing in the cooked and prepared sub-categories, but there are very few branded chicken products in the fresh subcategory,” he points out. “A consumer can buy a branded loaf of bread or a branded packet of bacon, but if a consumer wants a branded fresh chicken, they will have trouble finding one in the chillers of most multiple retailers.”

Further opportunities for brands could come via new product formats, as companies once again look to borrow from other categories into meat, fish and poultry. The Big Prawn Co, which offers a number of convenience and ready-to-eat shellfish products listed in Waitrose and Ocado is encouraging shoppers to use seafood as a lunchbox snack by bringing the yoghurt multipack format into seafood cocktails later this year.

There are also opportunities for brands to differentiate themselves through welfare of increasing interest to consumers. Noble Foods’ The Happy Egg Co has done this with aplomb, and its success in injecting value into a highly commoditised category has whetted appetites elsewhere. But as attractive as The Happy Egg Co model is, some experts warn it might not translate into meat, fish and poultry.

One reason is price, believes Dan McGuigan at Bernard Matthews. “With The Happy Egg Co, the price differential to standard eggs isn’t big, but with meat that’s so much more difficult,” he says. Welfare-specific branding itself could also present a challenge, say some brand experts, with consumers struggling to reconcile notions of ‘happy pigs’ or ‘happy cows’ with their fates as chops or burgers (see box).

Provenance has traditionally been a promising route to market for meat, fish and poultry brands, and James Butler, Sainsbury’s buyer for pre-packed ready-to-eat and wet fish, sees further potential for good provenance stories, particularly with smoked fish.

The most recent fish brand he listed, Yorkshire-based Bleiker’s Smokehouse, fits that brief perfectly. “It holds resonance with customers in the north of England and provides us with a regional option,” he says.

Aside from UK-specific provenance, some experts believe there is scope for brands with American or South American provenance, particularly beef. After all, South American-themed restaurants such as Gaucho Grills, have proved there is consumer interest in meat products from across the Atlantic and a willingness to pay a premium. Whether that interest can be translated into a successful retail proposition is hotly contested, however, not least because of the impending trade talks between the EU and the Mercosur bloc, and pressure on supermarkets to commit to British fare (see pp70-72).

Townend at Sainsbury’s sees “little if any” potential for specific American or South American brands, but it’s a different story at Tesco. In April it launched a range of beef products from Minnesota under the name I Love American into its larger stores, alarming British beef farmers. At present, the I Love American range comprises sirloin and ribeye steaks, priced at £22.99 and £24.99 per pack, both of which come from USDA-certified Black Angus cattle fed on a diet of grass and maize. “The key benefit to this particular product is the consistency of the meat and the way it is marbled, to give our customers a tender and flavoured product,” a spokeswoman explains.

Regardless of which route new brands opt for convenience, provenance, welfare, new packaging formats or all of the above their success will come down to whether they offer an exceptionally strong USP, says brand expert Don Williams of Pi Global. “Supermarkets are in the business of making money, so for them to take on brands in an area dominated by own label, there would have to be something the supermarkets can’t immediately offer or something that is so motivating, either through brand proposition or marketing spend, that it is going to fly off the fixture,” he says.

And there are further challenges even after brands get listed. The need for chilling means that, unlike ambient goods, fresh products need to try to make an impact in-store while being tied to one specific location.

To overcome this, fresh meat, fish and poultry brands need to work together with brands in other fresh sections such as Florette in salads and Albert Bartlett’s Rooster in potatoes believes McGuigan at Bernard Matthews.

“What Waitrose did with Heston and Delia where shoppers are encouraged to shop different categories for a meal that’s the holy grail of promotions; that’s where fresh meats have a real opportunity,” he says. “If we can link up, we can be so much stronger.”

The Gammon Co
Launched in April by bacon giant Tulip, The Gammon Company is aiming to make gammon attractive to young, modern shoppers. The £3.19 packs contain two quick-cook steaks, with a sachet of pour-over sauce in either caramelised pineapple or honey and mustard flavour, and are listed nationwide in Tesco.

Tulip brand controller Rob Stroud says: “By making gammon easier to cook and more exciting, with different flavours and new packaging, we aim to get gammon into a younger audience’s weekly shop.”

This brand of frozen products from Tonnies made its UK debut last autumn with the launch of Toast Me!, a range of meat-filled ‘pop-tarts’. Further launches quickly followed, and Tillman’s UK line-up now also includes a range of frozen barbecue products, frozen sauce-filled meatballs and the country’s first frozen toastable beef burger.

Big & Juicy
The Big Prawn Co is making its first foray into frozen with this new brand, due to hit supermarkets later this year. Big & Juicy king prawns are sealed in a vacuum pouch and packaged in a way that allows shoppers to see the prawns when browsing the frozen aisle. The 200g packs will be sold at an rsp around the £3.99 mark.

Serious Pig
Newcomer Serious Pig has launched a snacking salami (rsp: £1.99) made from free-range British pork. Selfridges fresh food buyer Andrew Cavanna, who recently listed the product, believes it has “hit the nail on the head.”

Having just secured a further listing, with Fortnum & Mason, the company is keen to explore opportunities with other high-end retailers. Journeyman’s Reality TV couple Ray Brabban and Jayne McGregor have launched a range of premium mutton products, having won BBC show A Farmer’s Life For Me earlier this year. The range, available online, includes three mutton sausages as well as two ‘nose bags’ containing ready-to-cook mutton. Brabban and McGregor are in talks with Asda and the Co-op.

Telling it how it is The Saucy Fish Co, The Gammon Company, The Big Prawn Co, The Scottish Salmon Company no prizes for guessing what branding trend is capturing the imagination of meat and fish execs. When it comes to adding value to highly commoditised categories, Noble Foods’ The Happy Egg Co appears to be a role model.

Further meat and fish co’s could be in the pipeline. The Saucy Fish Co owner Seachill is looking into offering sauces under the brand The Saucy Food Co, while Dovecote Park has trademarked The Juicy Beef Co. But could the ‘happy’ in The Happy Egg Co also make the move across to meat, fish and poultry?

Don Williams of PI Global is not convinced. The Happy Egg Co works because it plays on the image of hens “happily wandering around all day,” he says. When it comes to meat, the scenario is different.

“As the old adage goes, in an egg and bacon breakfast the chicken’s involved but the pig is committed. Having a happy pig wobbling about, waiting to have a bolt fired through its head, is a slightly different picture.”

Read the full Meat & Fish Supplement 2011