Bernard Matthews farms is the largest turkey producer in the UK. The business has grown substantially since its relatively humble origins in 1950, when entrepreneur Bernard Matthews bought 20 turkey eggs and a second-hand incubator. Twelve turkeys successfully hatched from this initial batch and, before long, the young entrepreneur was able to give up his insurance job and concentrate full-time on rearing turkeys.
Today, Bernard Matthews farms rears over seven million turkeys every year. Thirteen million UK households buy a Bernard Matthews farms branded product each year. Despite the size of its operations, the company remains close to its roots in East Anglia, with its farms located across Norfolk, Suffolk and Lincolnshire. Bernard Matthews’ vision is ‘to make turkey the preferred choice of protein for every day and every occasion’. The company’s product line featured affordable, tasty and convenient food choices.
Bernard Matthews farms operates in a competitive and fast-changing environment. Consumers are faced with a huge choice of foods to suit different lifestyles, diets, and tastes. However, in recent years, buying patterns have changed as consumers have become more concerned about healthy eating, food safety, and animal welfare.
Chance events can have a significant impact on a food business. For example, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s high-profile campaign in 2005 to improve the quality of school meals identified foods such as Bernard Matthews farms’ Turkey Twizzlers as being unhealthy. In 2007, there was an outbreak of bird flu at a Bernard Matthews farm in Suffolk. At that time, the media also discovered that the company imported some of its turkey from abroad. The press published stories suggesting that the imports could have been directly related to the outbreak, a theory that was never proven.
Initially, Bernard Matthews farms did not speak up and defend its product range against Oliver’s accusations. This resulted in adverse press coverage and the company lost credibility with the media. When bird flu hit, relations with the media were at an all-time low. The company's immediate reaction to the crisis was to focus on eliminating the disease, which it did successfully.
Communications came low on the list of priorities. This meant that the resulting information 'vacuum' was soon filled with damaging and often inaccurate news reports.
Another issue surfaced during this time period. Two of the company’s workers were convicted of animal cruelty in 2006, having been secretly filmed hitting turkeys with a pole. Others had been filmed playing ‘catch’ with turkeys. Bernard Matthews farms’ spokesperson initially gave “no comment”, saying he hadn’t seen the video, although he had been shown pictures of the abuse. The company nonetheless claimed it was ‘committed to the “highest standards” of animal welfare’. The employees defended themselves by saying that they were influenced by the “culture” at the plant. Yet, in June 2007, employees were again caught and filmed in acts of animal cruelty – this time kicking turkeys.
When the company realized the extent of the damage and finally opened up to the press it was too little, too late, as all trust had been lost. As a result, Bernard Matthews farms’ sales in the UK fell by 35% and the company went into a loss position for the first time.
In 2008, the company implemented a business turnaround program, which included changes to its products, practices, promotion, and communication.
CASE STUDY INSTRUCTIONS AND SUGGESTIONS
Examine this case from a communications perspective and develop a communications plan for Bernard Matthews farms as of 2008. Assume that you are a consultant engaged by then Bernard Matthews farms’ CEO Noel Bartram company for this purpose.
Answering the following questions will assist you to develop your communications plan....