Can the Bernard Matthews brand survive bird flu?


Over the weekend the UK had its first substantial outbreak of the H5N1 strain of bird flu. The outbreak was suspected late last week and has led to the culling of more than 160,000 turkeys at a farm near Lowestoft, Norfolk.

This is also the first time that an outbreak of such a disease has hit a branded farmer – Bernard Matthews. In the past, outbreaks of other infections among UK farmers have been centred on unbranded producers who form the vast majority of the UK farming sector.

While there’s undoubtedly damage to the generic brand when an outbreak hits unbranded producers, and there will be harm done to all poultry producers in the UK from this outbreak, will this outbreak be the nail in the coffin of the Bernard Matthews brand?

Bernard Matthews is a brand that, having launched in the 1950s, grew rapidly in until the 1990s as Uk food buyers demanded more convenience and pre-prepared food. In this climate the Bernard Matthews brand staked its claim as a trusted producer, with Matthews himself featured in advertising campaigns alongside the strapline “Boootiful!”. As a child of the 1980s I certain remember it!

However in the past few years the market has begun to work against mass-market food brands. The big growth in the food sector has been in organic foods and brands that appear more wholesome and small-scales (although in fact many are mass-market in scale).

In this climate the Bernard Matthews brand has risked becoming a anachronism, a product of the past with no brand resonance except nostalgia among a dwindling group of customers.

The brand has been hit further in the past few years by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s crusade to improve school meals (and rid of them of another Matthews product, the much maligned turkey twizzlers), and by a court case which found animal cruelty on a Matthews firm.

The latter case also shone a revealing light into the world of large-scale farming which can’t have contributed positively to Bernard Matthews’ brand equity.

My feeling is that a brand with as much heritage as Bernard Matthews can survive the bird flu outbreak, although the sheer scale of the farming operation and birds that have been culled will push even further brand away from the niche, small-scale food brands that are growing so rapidly.

However the Bernard Matthews brand feels like one in long-term decline. One that is evolving, but not rapidly enough or in the right direction to sustain a long-term future. The bird flu outbreak will be another notable point in the decline, but won’t be the final blow.

Bernard Matthews is a family-owned brand. I wonder how long the brand would have lived on under more ruthless brand operators, such as Procter and Gamble or Unilever?