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Save our spud, save our jobs – how decline of shopping staples could damage the sector

13 December 2018

It was a blustery March afternoon, back in 1971, when four men gathered at a pub on the Kerry coast of Ireland.

What might have looked like a regular swift one at the local would go on to save a dying Real Ale industry, decades later.

This westernmost pub in Europe was the birthplace of CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale), in defiance of the growing homogenisation of brewing, led by groups happy to sacrifice flavour for profit. 

And without these four people, the ongoing Great British pub cull could have claimed even more casualties, and our traditional breweries may not have survived long enough to start growing out hipster beards and calling themselves ‘craft’. 

 

Thankfully, variety in beer is now back in vogue. 

But the nation’s other traditional favourites, like potatoes, milk, bread – all your classic shopping list fillers – are looking down the barrel of a gun. 

And this could go off in a matter of years, not decades, taking down sales, marketing budgets, and ultimately, jobs, within once thriving sectors.

 

This is a serious issue for industries once thought of as untouchable, thanks to changing cultures and the decline of the ‘weekly shop’.

Seriously, how often does an urban 20-something even line their trolley with Maris Pipers, Hovis and four pints of semi-skimmed, these days?

 

We all thought our Walkman would last forever, Andy’s Records would still be blasting out hit compilations in the new millennium, and our Premier League sticker collection would be worth thousands by now.

But that’s the funny thing about ‘timeless’. It rarely lives up to its name.

Thank goodness Scotch Video Tapes offered a lifetime guarantee on their VHS cassettes – we don’t know what we’d do if we couldn’t record the 2021 Derby on our space-age video recorder.

 

And now, these once-classic foods are in trouble of going the way of the Betamax.

Potato sales have fallen by 5.4 per cent since 2015, as more ‘exotic’ or healthier alternatives chip away at the humble spud.

Milk sales have been steadily falling for years, with soya and almond milk the preferred cereal accoutrement – and profit forecasts don’t bode well, either. 

Bread sales are lower, with your basic sliced loaf dropping by 12 per cent in the last 5 years.

Ketchup sales – down by 13 per cent, as of 2017.

Brown sauce – down by 19 per cent in 2015.

 

What’s the cause? Depends who you ask.

Many people blame millennials, naturally. They’re apparently the cause for all bad things, according to most headlines. 

Sure, anyone who pays over £15 for a sad-looking plate of avocado pulp on a burnt slab of toast has some serious questions to answer.

But that’s a lazy accusation for a much more nuanced problem.

No, entire attitudes have changed, starting with younger people but spreading far and wide.

We’re more health conscious than we were, even 10 years ago, slowly morphing into a calorie-checking culture obsessed with e-numbers, ingredients and fad diets.

‘No-carbs’ means no dice for sliced bread, and no stodgy spuds; almond and soy are squeezing dairy sales; hot sauce continues to blast away ketchup and mayo.

 

Have we brought this on ourselves?

An industry constantly searching for new, unique selling points, lending increasing importance to provenance and real ingredients, has helped spawn a foodie culture.

The slow food revolution may just have been a product of marketing, which has since mutated into its own beast of judgemental label checkers and Yelp critics.

And now we run a mile at the mention of e-numbers or preservatives – despite the fact that most e-numbers are actually good for us, providing extra vitamins and supplements.

Advertising hasn’t been the sole cause of this culture shift. We’re not that powerful (…right?).

The world is more connected than we were 30 years ago, and more aware: about news, human rights, sports, media, and even more aware about what to have for dinner tonight.

Not that being more health-conscious is a bad thing. We’ll all live long enough to ride hoverboards / live on Mars / fight back against an AI uprising, or whatever the next ‘future’ will look like.

But a longer life expectancy will come at a cost, as some older food groups inevitably die out.

Smash the Avo Oligarchy!

 

Good riddance to bad food, some might say.

But that’s an incredibly cold, emotionless approach, especially for a country that has a unique relationship with these foods born from a post-world war environment.

Once upon a time, corned beef, spam and instant coffee were superstars. We once viewed microwaveable meals as the height of luxury!

Until such marvellously exotic dishes as ‘bolognese’ and ‘tikka masala’ usurped the legacy of the post-war diet.

First, they came for our Spam, and we said nothing. Because we were fed up of these tins of sadness clogging up our cupboards.

But then, they came for our quality ingredients. Ingredients we once thought as timeless.

The ‘craft’ movement, looking for anything artisanal, authentic, and often exotic, has left the boring foodstuffs behind in a cloud of hand-ground turmeric.

Potatoes – the tuber that launched a thousand dishes – are considered too unhealthy, despite being a powerhouse of vitamins, and too inconvenient, despite working really well in that microwave you probably threw out last year.

We’ve gone to the market, and sold our dairy cow for a bag marked ‘hubris’.

 

If a sector is suffering an inevitable decline, part of a natural evolution of culinary change, then market share doesn’t mean much.

Congratulations – you’re the captain of a sinking ship. If you’re in the crow’s nest, you won’t hit the water quite as fast.

But if our precious taters are destined to go the same way as the Betamax, is there any way to stop the rot?

It’s difficult to instil an entire culture change, to struggle against the current.

But not impossible.

 

In a distant past dominated with snare drums and synth, there was one man who dared to play a trombone. This man was named Douglas, about 6 inches tall, and made of butter.

The Lurpak adverts were as memorable as they were goofy, but by the mid-90’s, Douglas and other non-musical butters had a problem.

Margarines and dairy spreads were killing butter softly, with a promise of ‘buttery taste’, ‘easily spreadable’ convenience, and a healthier proposition.

Lurpak’s ‘lactic’ style of butter also faced challenges within the sector, from Anchor and own-brand’s ‘sweetcream’ taste.

So they decided to change the conversation.

They took out the amusing, but ultimately gimmicky little trombone man, and replaced it with a love-letter to cooking.

The ‘good food deserves Lurpak’ campaign celebrated butter as the cornerstone of incredible culinary discoveries and kitchen adventures.

The dulcet tones of Rutger Hauer’s voiceover didn’t go amiss, either.

It changed how people viewed not just Lurpak, but butter itself. Appealing to the growing foodie culture, keen to experiment with new dishes, Lurpak pulled an ‘M&S’, a complete change of costume that appealed to current trends, and maybe even created a few of its own.

 

For these classic foodstuffs that are in trouble, it’s not about winning in that sector.

Again, you can be the cleanest competitor in a mud-wrestling competition, but nobody’s going to run up and embrace you afterwards.

It’s about changing what that sector means to people. Changing the conversation around potatoes, around dairy, around classic condiments, and where they all fit in to our daily lives, because you’re competing for wallet share.

And that means thinking differently.

See: bread can be sexy, too.

 

A potato shouldn’t be considered filler – it should be the heart of a meal. A blank canvas with which to craft any number of masterpieces.

It’s healthier than anyone gives it credit for, naturally low in saturated fat and sugars, and a rich source of vitamin C, vitamin B6, and fibre.

And more importantly, the potato is grown in the UK, supporting local economies.

Sure, an avocado is nice. But think about the air miles required for every shipment; the heating and infrastructure needed to grow a fruit sourced from a much warmer climate.

Some establishments have already begun the avocado cull, banning them for environmental concerns – and Mexican cartels are even allegedly getting in on the act.

The Christmas advert from Iceland (but really made by Greenpeace) about the effects of Palm Oil production brought the fury of a nation down on a widely used product.

And less publicly, the news that billions of bees needed to pollinate crops, are transported thousands of miles, impacting their health and shortening lives, offers another warning of unseen environmental effects.

How long before we have activists dressed in bee costumes outside Westminster?

Not to say you can’t enjoy an avocado. But no solution is simple.

 

Similarly, bread doesn’t have to be unhealthy – rather, dispel the ‘gluten-free’ fad and present it as a way to keep you that little bit warmer, thus saving on heating bills, and potentially, saving the planet.

Yes, bread has the power to save the world.

It’s lasted a few thousand years so far, so it would be a shame to see it fall now, just because of recent bad press.

Technology moves fast. Many products find out they have a natural shelf-life, as new innovations come to the forefront.

But since a reliable pill-based diet is probably some way off, in the mean-time, the fundamentals of food won’t change. We all need nutrition, and if it comes with great flavour, then perfect.

But what needs to change is how we think about these traditional foods, before they become another victim of evolving taste.

We need to think long and hard about the correct messaging, to show the reasons to believe that don’t simply take aim at rivals in the same sector, but present quality reasons to believe that speak to a modern culture.

We can’t predict the future, but we can brace ourselves for change we see happening now.

 

If we sit back, and assume that potatoes, dairy, bread, et al are untouchable, then we all lose.

The times, they are a changing. So time to react, before profit loss turns into job loss, and job loss turns into a loss of a nation’s former favourite food.

#SaveOurSpud for Christmas, anyone?

 

If you work in these industries, get in touch – we’d love to have a chat and hear your insights on the state of our classic foods!