In April Riverford Organic Farms made the subtle shift to become Riverford Organic Farmers in a rebrand and refocus that places growers and vegetables at the heart of the business. Produce Business UK speaks exclusively to brand and customer director Rachel Watson – sister of founder Guy Watson – to learn about Riverford’s reaffirmed position on the market and how the company is successfully delivering what many modern consumers want
Being vertically integrated makes Riverford unusual on the market, according to Watson. “We are quite a particular business; we are farmers and we come from farming,” she says. “There are also very few people supplying such a range of high quality veg direct to consumers – organic veg in particular. We fill a gap in the market.”
It was precisely these two points of difference that Riverford wanted to highlight in its re-branding strategy, and also ultimately what keeps its customers coming back for more, especially at a time when retailers’ relationships with their suppliers are under the spotlight once again.
Although the company felt the expression of its old branding made Riverford recognisable, there was an acceptance that it didn’t highlight what was different about the company, nor was it relevant or necessarily loveable.
“With the new brand we’re trying to convey that we’re a people business,” Watson explains. “We are farmers, and first and foremost we are about veg. We wanted the name change to reflect more the fact that we’re a very personal business (people can come and visit us), yet we’re still independent, which is one of our core values.”
VIDEO: Founder Guy Watson discusses farming and Riverford:
Answering consumers’ needs
As an independent operator (Riverford doesn’t have outside shareholders), Watson says the firm’s customers have also come to view the firm as a spokesperson for farming. Furthermore, they have built up a level of trust in the way Riverford procures their food, which has played a major part in the success of the business.
“We find our customers are mildly ‘anti-supermarket’ in their thinking,” she states. “Although they all use supermarkets there are certain categories of purchase in which they invest a bit more thought. Fresh produce is one of those, while eggs and chicken are top of the list.”
Watson says the added attention comes down to the desire for quality and provenance. “Our customers care about where and how their food is produced,” she explains. “They put more thought into this than other [purchasing] areas.
“They’re concerned about issues such as health, pesticides, sustainability and gang labour. There is a very a high level of awareness among our customer base. A very high proportion are highly-educated, knowledgeable and questioning. Half of our customers are now families with children at home, and there’s an increasing number of small households, like couples.”
Riverford’s customers are clearly interested in cooking, food and its provenance. As a result, they require and seek out a brand they can trust to make the important purchasing decisions on their behalf, according to Watson.
“Riverford has been around and consistent for quite some time so there’s a high level of trust in us now. That’s a big differentiator. Our shoppers say they buy from us because they trust we’ll do it [procure their food] the right way.”
That also means treating suppliers fairly, and every time there’s a story in the media about the way retailers treat their suppliers Riverford receives a lot of comments, according to Watson. “It’s definitely part of shoppers’ motivation to buy from us – because we’re more transparent,” she points out.
In addition to its original organic production site at Riverford Farm in Devon, today Riverford is supported by regional farms in Peterborough, Yorkshire and Hampshire, as well as overseas suppliers who fill gaps outside of the UK season. All partnerships are built on trust, for everyone involved.
“We look for long-term relationships based on trust, and, generally, that’s what growers want too,” Watson explains. “We don’t just want to take a crop on an ad-hoc basis. We negotiate prices seasonally. We look at what their costs are. We work with them on varieties, etc. We want our growers to be able to make a living, long-term.”
At the end of the day, however, Riverford’s growers still have to come up with the goods. “The quality has to be there,” Watson says. “If that’s the case, we guarantee we’ll take the produce. We’re looking for really competent growers who want a long-term relationship. If you have a product you think we need, just call us to discuss.”
Set up in 1987, Riverford now delivers around 47,000 produce boxes a week to homes around the UK. In that time the company has expanded its 100% organic vegetable, salad and fruit range to include meat, dairy and store cupboard staples, while sticking to its ethics of supporting small-scale, family farms in the UK, wherever possible.
With founder Guy Watson having grown vegetables for over 30 years, the veg and salad category remains core to the Riverford business, although there are other products the firm can and does deliver to a high standard – Riverford feels very confident about its meat and dairy offer, for example.
With that in mind, the new look and strapline ‘Live life on the veg’ are designed to show the world that Riverford is mad about – and experts in – veg. “Horticulture is very difficult to get right,” Watson points out. “Offering veg boxes means growing over 100 varieties and getting all those right in quite a difficult climate.
“You have to grow a whole range, then market and distribute, which is all pretty taxing. You also need decent refrigeration as different temperatures make huge differences to quality. If you’re not specialised it’s very difficult to do and to do it well.”
As a result, Riverford remains a niche brand, according to Watson. Indeed, she claims there are fewer and fewer of the smaller veg box providers still in business today because it’s hard way to make a living.
“Veg box schemes on the whole have been small and localised,” she says. “The only other big provider is Abel & Cole, which is about the same size as Riverford. But the founder has come in and out of the business, and it’s now run by a northern food company called the William Jackson Food Group. Abel & Cole has become much less organic too, and they don’t grow themselves. It’s a very different model. Riverford is committed to supplying 100% organic produce.”
Focusing on fruit
While vegetables are what Riverford does best, Watson admits offering organic fruit is harder for the company to do quite as well. “We don’t know quite as much [about fruit],” she concedes.
“We do have excellent growers in the UK for products like topfruit and soft fruit, as well as growers abroad. Some of our fruit is outstanding – citrus, for example – but we struggle to get consistently good apples outside of the UK season. There’s also a constraint on our soft fruit offer because we only source from ethical (non-heated) greenhouses in the UK, which reduces our season a bit.”
Nonetheless, Riverford acknowledges that consumer appetite for fruit is “huge”, which means the fruit offer is firmly planted on its list of things to improve. “Our fruit is good but not quite as consistently as good as our veg, and we probably want a bit more variety throughout the year,” Watson says.
Capitalising on the veg craze
Having refocused on veg, Riverford believes its new look will help the company to reach like-minded people. Indeed, in the last few years British consumers have become more interested in growing and cooking vegetables. There has also been a rise in vegetarianism and the emergence of flexitarianism.
“The number of vegetarians in our customer base has gone up,” Watson reveals. “Vegetarians are now very mainstream. The ratio of vegetarians within the 16-25-30 age group is really high. The number of restaurants in London with a serious veg offer has risen, and there are significant number of vegetarian or heavily veggie cookbooks coming out all the time. Some call it ‘the [London chef Yotam] Ottolenghi effect’, or the influence of Middle Eastern cooking and other cuisines that are more vegetable-based.”
Over the last 10 years or so Riverford has been helping Brits to enjoy cooking vegetables thanks to its veg box scheme, in addition to the recipe boxes it introduced 18 months ago and the dedicated recipes section on its website, which accounts for 59% of Riverford’s online traffic.
“Veg does have a real resonance with consumers – they aspire to use and eat more veg,” claims Watson. “It’s definitely become very important to us. If someone’s looking for veg, we want them to think ‘Riverford’.”
Keeping consumers keen
Riverford adds new products to its veg boxes all the time to ensure its consumers remain excited about veg and up-to-speed with the latest trends. Over the years, the company has introduced mizuna, artichokes, wild garlic, cardoons and tomatillos, as well as edamame beans after one of its growers read that a celebrity was a big consumer of the Asian veg.
Current trends include cauliflower becoming fashionable again, and sweet potatoes continuing to be very popular. At the same time, Riverford tries to keep its boxes as seasonal as possible. In June the firm will launch a UK veg-only box that’s available for 10 months of the year in line with domestic seasons.
“There are many people who have been with us for years, so you do need to keep up the interest or it can wear thin into the third or fourth season,” accepts Watson. “Guy is relentless with experimentation. Right now he’s very keen on cardoons. We did a few last year and this year it’s growing slightly. We often trial products our growers are reluctant to grow because they are more marginal crops, so we do it ourselves and take the risk.”
Even though not all products will appeal to the majority – Watson confesses that cardoons won’t be for everyone – she says being able to offer its customers new products and helping them to use those ingredients remains important in terms of encouraging excitement and consumption.
“Customers see the benefits of the box scheme,” she explains. “They might not try a certain product otherwise, and in a supermarket they tend to shop within the recognised categories. So we can expand their repertoire.
“That also applies to getting kids to eat produce and new products. If children are there when a box arrives and they’re involved in unpacking the ingredients they are much more willing to eat what’s been delivered.”
Within that, Watson says recipe boxes is a really big growth market, and not just in the UK but also in Scandinavia from where the concept originated. As the trend grows very steadily, it’s set to be “pretty important” to Riverford’s business in the next five years, according to Watson.
“Recipe boxes appeal to a different type of consumer, although there is some crossover,” she explains. “They suit consumers who are busy, those who want to inspire their cooking, or people who are simply going away for the weekend and want easy options.
“But the big market for recipe boxes is the mid-week cooks, and those that are reasonably cash-rich, who don’t have time to plan and shop but still want the pleasure of cooking. It’s a very big growth area, particularly in London.”
Riverford has also responded to the need to make its box schemes more flexible for customers. Now they can opt for fortnightly boxes, change boxes, pause deliveries, or simply buy extras if they have leftovers from the previous week’s box.
“People used to talk about ‘the tyranny of the box’ 15 years ago but you don’t hear that any more,” notes Watson. “Quite a lot of our customers don’t receive veg boxes at all; they just make up their own order from our extras list, which is a bit more flexible than a box.”
Engaging with customers
This strategy of keeping up with customers’ requirements while ensuring they remain highly engaged is one of the keys to Riverford’s to success. From a marketing perspective, its website is clearly very important. But in recent years the firm has become increasingly active on social media, which its customers use as a platform to talk to each other as well as to the business.
At the same time, founder Guy Watson continues to write a weekly newsletter (on farm policy or food news) that’s still printed and sent inside the boxes. Recipes are distributed that way too, while an email programme regularly informs customers about what’s coming in their boxes.
The business also engages with people face to face, which has proven to be a hit with customers. There’s a restaurant on Riverford’s farm in Devon (the Riverford Field Kitchen), where various events (from farm walks to secret suppers) are hosted. The group also owns an organic pub in London called The Duke of Cambridge, and is currently developing cooking classes around the country.
“Riverford is quite a community-ish brand,” Watson explains. “There’s a clubby feel to us, and we try to build on that. It’s nice to meet customers too. Whatever opportunity you have to give your customers some fresh inspiration is always appreciated.”