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Promoting Potatoes — British Style

Why the Canadian potato industry could learn much from the way potatoes are marketed in the United Kingdom.

Canadian-born writer Nathaniel Branden once wrote: “In a world in which the total of human knowledge is doubling about every 10 years, our security can rest only on our ability to learn from others.” These words of wisdom could be considered quite applicable when it comes to potato marketing in these times of stagnant or dwindling potato demand in North America. A look at some of innovative promotional ideas and activities implemented by potato industries in other countries shows there is much we as Canadians can learn.

cook-your-own-potatoes

Students at Wigston High School in Leicestershire, England, preparing potato jackets as part of an educational initiative. All photos courtesy of the Potato Council.

One country that comes to mind is the United Kingdom — not only the birthplace of such potato meal mainstays as fish and chips and bangers and mash, but recognized as one of the most successful marketers of potatoes in the world. Here is a brief overview of some of the current promotional activities going on in Britain that can provide food for thought for Canadian potato marketers.

Half of the United Kingdom’s potato crop goes into the fresh supply chain, with the majority being sold through the major retailers. The country’s Potato Council has a strong and vibrant marketing and corporate affairs division that works on behalf of all sectors of the industry to deliver benefits from money collected from member levies.

Caroline Evans is the marketing head for the Potato Council, which she says “focuses on sustaining long-term demand for potatoes and leveraging the importance of the potato. Our work focuses on communicating with consumers, schools, the media, government, key influencers and working with supply chain. The primary focus of the council’s activities is on the consumer, promoting the generic properties of the potato — healthy, natural, tasty, sustainable and versatile — which benefits all routes to market.”

Celebrating Chip Week

It’s no secret that Brits love their chips. There are more than 10,000 fish and chip shops in the United Kingdom, and 300-million portions of fish and chips are consumed in the country annually. For more than 20 years, the third or fourth week of February has been dedicated to Chip Week, another Potato Council initiative that serves as a platform for the food service sector to generate interest in quality chip dishes and help drive sales. Hundreds of chip shops compete for the Choice Chip awards title. This year, more than 35,000 chip-loving Brits voted for their champion ‘chippy’.

“Chip Week has become an integral part of the catering calendar and a high profile event for the sector,” says Kate Cox, marketing manager for the Potato Council. “After all, no menu is complete without a chip offering!”

Chip Week is backed by a national public relations campaign that generated £3.4-million worth of coverage last year. The campaign generated more than 600 news and feature items across national and regional press, consumer magazines, television, radio and online. Research conducted during the week also provided insight into consumer purchasing habits and satisfaction levels, as well as perceived areas of opportunity for chip shops — identifying areas in which they can compete more effectively against increasing pressure from alternative takeout food outlets.

A national Potato Week in Canada, if organized efficiently, could certainly become an annual reality. The PR involved in such an event could conceivably generate public interest and help spur greater potato consumption, even if only over a short-term period.

Potato Ambassadors

Every second year, the Potato Council appoints dedicated growers from various regions in the United Kingdom as potato ambassadors. These ambassadors are given media training and help spread key messages about the health benefits and versatility of potatoes by attending events, visiting schools and hosting on-farm visits, as well as speaking to the media. According to Evans, the initial program in 2009 appointed 10 growers to help support Potato Council activities and campaigns and attracted more than £1.2-million worth of coverage in the consumer press and the public relations equivalent of £64,000 in trade magazines.

Here in Canada a similar initiative could potentially involve all the major potato-producing provinces, with ambassadors chosen from each one.

Britain’s Potato Council launched its Cook Your Own Potatoes program 2011, as a way to encourage younger consumers to eat more potatoes.

Reclassifying Potatoes

In October 2012, the Potato Council launched a new classification system for potatoes. As a result of market research showing that 85 per cent of Brits wanted to know more about potatoes, a simple guide was published which groups the most common varieties together in three, easy-to-understand classifications —fluffy, smooth and salad.

“Potatoes remain one of the nation’s favourite ingredients — they can be used to create so many tasty dishes and being naturally fat free, they’re a nutritious base for lots of meals too,” says Evans. “Because they’re so versatile, we’ve developed this new classification system to make it even easier for you to pick the potato that’s right for your dish every time. We understand it comes down to a matter of individual taste but our new guide simply acts as a starting point and suggests how you can try cooking all of the different varieties, saving you lots of time in the kitchen.”

There is a great need in Canada for marketing based on consumer preferences, when it comes to different variety types and specific uses of different varieties. Specific varietal marketing would certainly help retailers to better position potatoes in the fresh produce aisle. For this reason, a consumer-friendly classification system similar to the British model represents a great opportunity for potato marketers in this country.

Potatoes in Schools

Research into the food service sector by the Potato Council in 2005 revealed an unsettling lack of knowledge among food service operators about potatoes. Since then, the Potato Council has increased its efforts to educate caterers about how potatoes can help them meet school meal guidelines. Here in Canada, there are a wide range of resources available to help promote potatoes in school meals and ensure the potato’s nutritional profile is recognized.

Another Potato Council initiative is Grow Your Own Potatoes, a learning project that challenges primary school students to grow the biggest crop of potatoes. Since its launch in 2005, the project has become the largest of its kind in the United Kingdom, with almost one-million children learning where potatoes come from, how they grow, and their nutritional benefits. Its simplicity and hands-on approach make Grow Your Own Potatoes an ideal learning tool for schoolchildren, who are given the opportunity to plant and harvest their own crop using seeds and other resources supplied to them free of charge.

In 2011, the Potato Council stepped up its educational efforts in high schools with the launch of Cook Your Own Potatoes, an online resource site for secondary school instructors to help them teach kids about healthy eating habits and the role of potatoes in a balanced diet.

According to Evans, “younger consumers are eating fewer potatoes than their parents and grandparents. To address this we need to reach them while they are still young and help them develop lifelong eating habits. By making a difference to the way children view food at a young age, we can help shape healthy eating habits that will stay with them as they grow, influencing their diet and purchasing habits in the future.”

According to Statistics Canada, there were just more than five-million primary and secondary students enrolled in schools in the 2009/10 school year. This is a huge target group for any promotional campaign, and potato marketers would be wise to keep schoolchildren in mind when planning future potato marketing strategies.

Aiming at Younger Consumers

Market research in the United Kingdom also indicates that consumers aged 25 to 44 are eating fewer potatoes. The Potato Council conducts regular focus groups around advertising campaigns and other marketing tools to ensure that they are delivering the right messages to this demographic in a clear and concise manner.

One such campaign is called Many Faces of Potatoes, an initiative co-financed by the European Union. This campaign is aimed at mostly younger consumers and strives to highlight the versatility, convenience and health benefits of the potato through a wide range of consumer-centred marketing tools. Its main message is to show tomorrow’s families how potatoes can be important part of a sustainable diet, with the goal of helping to sustain future demand for potatoes.

The latest initiative in the Many Faces of Potatoes is a commercial which aired across Britain’s major television channels the first two weeks of July. Aimed at raising awareness of the new season crop of potatoes, the ad drives home healthy facts about the vegetable to young family audiences.

Potato consumer demographics in Canada may be similar to that in Britain, so marketers in this country would be advised to identify similar opportunities to target younger consumers and increase potato consumption by this particular group.

Potato Council director Rob Clayton helps schoolchildren with their harvest at a primary school in Cambridgeshire, England, as part of the Grow Your Own Potatoes educational program.

Potato Council director Rob Clayton helps schoolchildren with their harvest at a primary school in Cambridgeshire, England, as part of the Grow Your Own Potatoes educational program.

Involving the Industry

All marketing efforts need industry support to maximize the effectiveness of these activities. A strong message needs to be promoted by the whole industry. That’s part of the Potato Council’s message to the potato industry in the United Kingdom — that getting involved in promotional campaigns and projects will bring rewards, both at a business and industry-wide level.

The Potato Council has a special vehicle for promotional purposes that it encourages the industry to use. It comes complete with a cook who can offer up sample potatoes and which can be set up to promote potatoes at trade shows and on-farm events, as well as outside retail food stores. The council also offers a recipe book with quickly, tasty and healthy potato recipes that industry members are asked to distribute whenever possible.

Influencing Key Stakeholders

The Potato Council aims to influence not just consumers but all stakeholders important to the British potato industry, including government departments, NGOs, policy developers, academics, nutritionists, retailers and food and drink trade associations. The council has challenged policymakers about the references made to potatoes in the public domain, and has been successful in getting potatoes listed in government documents about health and related dietary matters in a more favourable way — including potatoes as a good carbohydrate choice and nutritious meal option.

The council has also worked with independent nutrition experts to draft compelling evidence about the nutritional benefits of the potato and get the message out through celebrity endorsements. Two booklets have been produced that help illustrate sustainability of the crop and the importance of potatoes for health and to the nation. Industry members are asked to distribute these booklets to relevant stakeholders.

In an effort to rebrand the potato, and encourage consumers to reconsider the humble spud as the newest, oldest super food, the Prince Edward Island Potato Board recently teamed up with Olympic athlete Heather Moyse to promote potatoes. This kind of initiative could be done on a national scale, especially when celebrities are coming on board to endorse potatoes. There are also a number of independent nutritional experts in Canada who could also be approached in this regard.

Provincial potato organizations, as well as national organizations such as the Alliance for Potato Research and Education, Potatoes Canada, the United Potato Growers of Canada and the Canadian Horticultural Council, might consider teaming up to publish potato booklets that could be distributed to the public by industry members across the country.

 

Market Research

The Potato Council makes a significant investment in research to support the fresh potato market — from identifying shopper behaviour to looking at how consumption can be driven at home. All research is commissioned after consultation with industry to ensure it delivers good value — and increases the knowledge base.

According to guidelines for market research as stated in the National Potato Research and Innovation Strategy, compiled by the Canadian Horticultural Council, the following strategic objectives pertain to market research in the potato industry:

  • To conduct research on maximizing/improving the nutritional benefits of potatoes
  • To promote the nutritional value and benefits of potatoes
  • To conduct market research to identify consumer and market preferences as a means to assist in the development of new products
  • To develop research-specific information dissemination mechanisms for industry use

The Potato Consumer Research Initiative, established in 2006 at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College (now the Faculty of Agriculture at Dalhousie University), is a multidisciplinary group of researchers with extensive experience in the fields of marketing management, potato genetics, consumer behaviour and research methodology. The initiative is pioneering potato consumer research in Canada to provide meaningful, high-quality information with real-world applications for the benefit of Canadian agri-business, consumers and government.

Elsewhere in this issue of Spud Smart, we looked at how our own potato industry could stand to benefit from consumer-based tactics for marketing and merchandising potatoes. Clearly, there is also much to learn from the British approach to potato promotion. Evans summarizes the essence of the Potato Council approach as follows: “Potatoes have all the core ingredients— healthy, tasty, sustainable and versatile. The challenge comes from the population eating an increasingly diverse diet, featuring more of our competitors. We need to inspire consumers to eat more potatoes with delicious recipes and educate them about their health credentials. There is also a need to increase awareness of potatoes as a healthy and sustainable product to the government and the media — there is a positive story for us to shout about and make sure potatoes get the recognition they deserve.

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