AHDB and Co-op discuss the dairy retail crisis

The second episode of our Agri Food Comms Cast provides fascinating insight into two very different tactical responses to Covid-19. We delved into two very different communication approaches with two very different audiences to find out how AHDB and the Co-op have reacted to the challenges currently faced by the British dairy industry – and in the case of Co-op, the reaction they have received in return.

Speaking to Christine Watts, AHDB chief communications officer and Caroline Mason, head of agriculture, Co-op, what emerges from both interviews is the fundamental importance of creating sustainable advocacy programmes. Ever since Aristotle’s scholarly text on advocacy, marketeers have been seeking to empower their brand fans, turning a one-way marketing channel into multiple conversations.

Both Co-op and AHDB are implementing strategies based on developing lasting relationships and influencing behaviour.
The dairy sector’s recent woes have been widely reported in the press. The loss of the foodservice market has caused severe market disruption with some processors dropping prices, deferring payments, and implementing reduced production levels. It has been an economically turbulent time for many farmers.

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Farmer in field on phone

For the Co-op, a decade long programme of stakeholder investment underpinned the reaction to the pandemic and, with no behind-the-scenes engineering, resulted in the ultimate PR goal of achieving unsolicited external endorsement.

Co-op’s network of 159 dairy farmers have created a dedicated ‘thank you’ video demonstrating their gratitude for the retailer’s ongoing support – for upholding milk prices and maintaining stability within the producer network. This is despite the backdrop of being asked to reduce volumes by 3% to tackle milk surplus.

By approaching a difficult challenge in a pragmatic way that remains consistent with its overarching strategy, Co-op has leveraged the value of the trust it has built with its dairy farmers. The video is fantastic testimony to Co-op’s success. It is a goodwill gesture that has been underpinned by frequent communications and touchpoints over the last nine years, that have helped farmers feel connected to the Co-op in a meaningful way.

As Caroline Mason explains; “A group of farmers actually pulling together to thank a retailer is just unheard of… it was really special.”

For AHDB, the challenge has been somewhat different, as an immediate response was sought to help stimulate milk sales.

On the 6 th May, AHDB announced its government-backed £1million campaign to boost milk consumption. As chief communications officer, Christine Watts, explains, AHDB would not normally consider investing in a promotional marketing campaign for a product that already enjoys 98% market penetration. However, the impact of Covid on the dairy industry presented a particularly challenging marketing conundrum. It is one that has required a targeted response, using an untested approach to facilitate its implementation.

To achieve the ambitious objective of increasing sales by 3%, AHDB analysed existing market insight into consumer behaviour and attitudes to define its target audience and create a campaign that resonates with society.

The resulting 12-week promotion focuses on driving ‘premium treaters’ and ‘influenceable households’ milk-based beverage occasions through social media, digital and television. The goal is to connect consumers, who might be feeling isolated and missing the social moments when they’d ordinarily enjoy a milk-based beverage. The campaign aims to recreate these social moments virtually – building an online community which shares user-generated content that will ultimately feed into the TV commercial positioning.

The restrictions on movement have meant the AHDB team has needed to be agile and innovative. They are testing a promotional approach that is new for many marketeers and there will be a full Kantar mix model evaluation and a future thinking deep dive in attitudes from consumers, to assess the effectiveness of the campaign.

It will be interesting to see how consumers respond and whether we’ll see any long-term changes in consumer purchasing habits when we eventually return to ‘normality!’
AHDB and Co-op’s response to this very specific crisis have been tackled in distinctly different ways, yet the success of both initiatives is dependent on effective advocacy and stimulating engagement. We wish them both every success.

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