Uncertain future for Britain’s booming berry industry as Brexit looms

Laurence Olins at NYPS

Laurence Olins

Ana Iacob Photography

British Summer Fruits chairman Laurence Olins, tells his story of taking the simple strawberry and building an entire industry with a year-round PR campaign focused on increasing berry consumption in the UK. Speaking as part of the New York Produce Show’s Global Trade Symposium the ‘Dean of the British produce industry’ detailed the seismic success of last year’s campaign which culminated in retail sales topping £1 billion and the ‘real worries’ rippling through the industry as Brexit looms. PBUK was there to find out more. 

“In two years time we’ll be coming out of the EU, the biggest market in the world with 500 million people, 28 (soon to be) 27 countries and the UK has taken this decision. There are lots of similarities between what the UK has done and what the US has done in terms of moving away from the traditional pattern of trade,” he says.

“In the soft fruit industry we employ 31,000 seasonal workers every year. UK citizens do not like to come and pick our crops and so we have to bring in workers from the EU; from Poland, Czech Republic and Bulgaria etc. They represent 95 percent of our workforce and without them we are absolutely sunk.

“70 percent of these workers come back every year; there’s a disinclination now due to the Pound being devalued and the fact that they feel unwelcome which is a big problem to us. The devaluation of sterling for our workers means their remittance back to their home countries is reduced and there is an anti immigrant feeling in the UK which is really disappointing to see and experience.”

Olins is busy lobbying government at the highest level to pass on the serious concerns in the soft fruit industry. But with no guarantees, no real idea of the detail of trade negotiations and nothing being certain, he’s seriously concerned about the future once the UK officially leaves the EU.  

“The government, and I have had meetings at the highest level other than the Prime Minister, but they will not give us any assurances of where our labour is going to come from in two years time. This is a real worry to our industry. One little bit of good news is that recently the Secretary of State did say she may consider seasonal workers, but we have absolutely no guarantees whatsoever.

“No labour, no industry. So all this good stuff may come to nought if we don’t have people to pick up crops and there’s acute uncertainty as a result.”

Logistical nightmare

Britain does not export large quantities of berries but it does import high volumes from Spain as well as importing plants, many of which are grown in Bulgaria. Right now there are no borders or  tariffs but all that would change under Brexit.

“There will be border controls and tariffs and the whole job of importing will become much more difficult and become a logistical nightmare.

“If you imagine trying to bring in Californian strawberries across the states and having to stop at every single state to pay a tariff or have your product inspected, that’s what is going to happen to us. Whereas at the moment we can bring a truck of strawberries from Spain and there is no delay whatsoever.

“We get a fair amount of funding from Europe, about US$50 million to help our industry and again, this could very well be curtailed. That money goes on capital projects, it doesn’t go on subsidising crops. The result of this money has meant that we have become very self sufficient. These funds have been guaranteed until 2020 and after that who knows what’s going to happen.”

Demonstrating just how successful the UK soft fruit industry is right now, in every £5 spent on fruit, more than £1 is spent on berries; soft fruit represents 22 percent of the basket, says Olins.

“We’ve created this virtuous circle and Brexit is without a doubt creating a great deal of uncertainty. And Trump’s policies on climate control, customs, unions and immigration could have a global effect and we are concerned about that.

“We don’t know what they are but they could have an effect on us. Our business strategy is to stay focus, concentrate all of the time on the consumer, to innovate and not to get complacent.”

Looking back at 2016

Olins goes through some of the reasons why BSF has created so much success, which include expanding the limited berry supply to year-round availability, growing the ‘superfood’ status of the big three; blueberries, strawberries and blackberries and keeping nutritional and convenience credentials top-of-mind for health conscious consumers.

“First of all to run a year-round, 365-day campaign for berries, we don’t care where they come from, all we are there for is to promote and expand our category. We collect and disseminate crop data, so our members know exactly by crop, by customer in week two, what happened in week one.

“We commission both scientific and market research; the scientific research we use in terms of our PR, we create the research and then we use it to push berry consumption. We have a direct relationship with every single supermarket in the UK, we don’t give them money but we give them facts as myself and my team have face to face meetings with them every year and they are very involved in our business, our industry, and as reward, they give us shelf space which is very important. And then we collaborate with overseas exporters as well, particularly the Chileans who support our campaigns and also from Spain in addition.

“In value our business has improved from £450 million per annum to over £1.2 billion in retail sales value. It’s been compound annual growth of over eight percent, which is quite a story. Importantly tonnage has gone up as well. It’s not just value,  people are eating more of our product which is very important.”

Blueberry boost

The real growth and success story of the UK soft fruit industry is blueberries, explains Olins, as 15 years ago there were virtually no blueberries eaten in the UK.

“It was very much an American product. My company introduced it and it has pretty much pushed the category. Strawberry is still growing but at a much slower rate, raspberries have stayed fairly static but now with new varieties it has suddenly taken off again and the blackberry is a little bit of the orphan of the category.

“The total eating of fruit is not that great, so who are the losers in this game? We set out, right from the word go, to be winners, we had to take business from other fruits. The big losers; apples pears, bananas and grapes and we continue to take business from those categories. Our job is to increase our category, it’s as simple as that and we don’t care at whose expense.

“In terms of where the British berry market has gone, the growers in the UK have raised their game and met the challenge of this increasing market so even ten years ago they represented about 44 percent of the toal and now they’re representing about the same so the market has grown and growers have grown with it.”

In the outer season BSF import from Chile, Argentina, Peru and South Africa. As there are relatively small quantities of UK grown blueberries, the big sources are Poland, Chile and Spain, whilst blackberries are grown in Spain, Mexico, the UK and the Netherlands.

“We set out to stimulate demand, we wanted a demand pull and a supply following up behind and not the other way around, and we have achieved that.

PR Campaigns

Olins explained how very quickly BSF decided to promote the health benefits of berries alongside a focus on health, beauty and sex.

In any order you like, all those components seem to work. Our products are good in all those categories,” he tells the audience.

British Summer Fruits

“Then there is the superfood status of our fruit. There are many claims to the benefits of blueberries, raspberries and strawberries and we have ridden that particular ride and also created more occasions for people to eat berries.”

Two decades ago people ate berries around Wimbledon pouring cream on them, sprinkling sugar over them or using them in a gateaux. Fast forward and consumers have completely moved away from that, eating berries on different types of occasions; breakfast, lunch ,dinner, at the office, as a snack and as they are walking.

“There is a whole range of new occasions that people are eating our fruit, which is very important. It’s a convenience product, in my own business we worked out a long time ago that the fruits to concentrate on are the ones you can eat and walk at the same time. We hit that particular category, it’s a very convenient product; you don’t wash it and you can eat it straight away.

“Also the consumer has changed over the last five to ten years and they are buying more frequently. It’s not so much a once a week purchase and that suits our product because with a once a week shop, if the consumer buy berries, they’ll finish them within two days and then for five days they’ve got no berries in their fridge or table.

“But now they are buying every day, the convenience stores are a big thing in the UK, the same as in the US, and they are buying online. This increasing number of shopping occasions has benefited our product.”

The association has an income of about £350,000, with the majority spent on its continual PR campaigns run by an agency, explains Olins. There are more campaigns planned for 2017 to build on a series of PR ‘stunts’ in the last couple of years.

“We have shifted the consumer from strawberries and cream into other uses for berries and a demand that the consumer didn’t realise they wanted. We’ve shifted our campaigns, our news, from just announcing the start of the season to a whole range of different campaigns to stimulate the consumer, to get them working and thinking about our products.”

British Summer Fruits

Olins explains the huge coverage and exposure during the ‘Strawberries say summer’ campaign when BSF commissioned the University of London to conduct sensory research to see how consumers linked their thoughts and their senses with strawberries.

“We wanted to engender the smell of strawberries with what people thought about when they thought about strawberries. They thought about cutting the lawn, tennis and there was a whole range of things they did. We also got a taste expert, a chef who could create dishes around that sensory and we created a multi sensory experience and we did that in conjunction with Marks & Spencer.

“We got a whole load of press coverage just about this link between how strawberries smell and the effect it has on the consumer.

“The other areas where we have spent a lot of time is in foodies and bloggers. We have a very big outreach programme with bloggers. There are people who are very keen on cooking and using all sorts of ingredients and then they go away and blog our products to tens of thousands of readers. This is a very price efficient method of getting a message across.”

Commissioning and using research

Another campaign centred on research by Loughborough University to see how snacking on berries on a daily or weekly basis at work would affect weight.

“This was a key piece of research and we found the consumer would lose a stone in weight if they stuck to a snacking campaign. It was supported by a very famous UK DJ (Sara Cox) who acted as ambassador and it was a very effective campaign. It got us £3 million worth of advertising or readership and a return on investment of £87 for every £1 we spent.”

The winner and most successful campaign was ‘Berry Brainy’ with BSF again commissioning research that showed eating berries improves concentration at work.

“We created a brain in the centre of London and covered it with punnets of fruit and we had the brightest (and also the best looking) TV presenter in the UK, Rachel Riley, to front it. It was a great stunt and got enormous amount of coverage in the daily press and at the end of the stunt, all of the consumers could take away a punnet so we managed to move all that fruit as well.

“We’re going to use this again this winter in another sort of way. We got a ROI of £42 for every £1 spent. Generating coverage and improving demand the whole time and sucking that demand through to the supply chain.”

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