Northern Ireland is synonymous with potatoes, but it has has faced some tough competition from rice and pasta in recent years, so one firm decided to use this spud association to good effect with clever marketing, says David Elliott
Reputation is everything in the food industry. Scotland has become synonymous with high-quality Aberdeen Angus beef, Wales has built up a loyal following for its lamb, while England has successfully marketed itself around the globe as a lush garden growing everything from apples to asparagus.
Northern Ireland’s food industry, on the other hand, has had to work hard to shake off a troubled past and the perception of a predominantly urban landscape, one which has instilled itself in the minds of consumers in those other three countries.
But it is beginning to work and its food producers are managing to export more each year to Britain and beyond while at the same time building up Northern Ireland’s reputation as a supplier of high-quality, carefully produced food.
But if you were to head across the Irish Sea today and carry out a survey of shoppers in any town from John O’Groats to Land’s End, what food product would they associate with Northern Ireland? Chances are the answer you’d most likely get is potatoes.
Now, you may scoff at such an obvious answer and point out that our farmers are much more sophisticated nowadays but, rather than fight against it, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t take that perception and run with it.
A local company which has been trying to do just that is Wilson’s Country, which buys and packs potatoes from farmers in Northern Ireland for sale mostly to local retailers and those in the Republic. While the company has been making impressive inroads in both those markets, Lewis Cunningham, the company’s managing director, has his sights set further afield.
“Potatoes are to the Irish what wine is to the French,” he said in an interview with
Business Month at the company’s Portadown headquarters. “Harnessing that perception across the water is a huge export opportunity for us.”
If anyone knows about the importance of marketing, it’s Mr Cunningham and the rest of the team at Wilson’s Country.
Faced with declining consumption of potatoes among the public at large, it has managed to take what was essentially a commodity and turn it into a product with individual characteristics aimed at the needs and wants of the consumer.
It has done this by developing the Wilson’s Country brand and you would be hard pushed to find a better example of a marketing turnaround, one which will no doubt be used by marketing lecturers for years to come.
The key was listening. It found that some consumers like different characteristics in their daily spud — some prefer a waxy potato, some like a floury one — and quickly began decommoditising the product.
Under the anonymous supermarket ‘white potato’ label which was prevalent before, those qualities were variable but now, with different varieties in clearly labelled bags, consumers were able get a level of consistency not previously available.
And the bags themselves aren’t quite as heavy. Research by Wilson’s proved buyers didn’t want to fork out for bulk bags but preferred smaller sizes to avoid excessive wastage.
“We started to give consumers what they wanted,” Mr Cunningham said. “The potatoes we grow have a wide range of dry matters, but we can provide a consistent taste experience to the consumer if we know what they want and let them know what they’re buying.”
All this attention to detail has been key to ensuring the company has managed to make the most of a market which is increasingly having to compete with two other forms of carbohydrate — pasta and rice.
They have eaten into potato consumption during the past few years, so increasing the attractiveness of the tuber is key, particularly so when costs — both of potatoes and of the inputs used in the growing process — have shot up. In 2002, each person in Northern Ireland consumed 55kg of potatoes, while in 2010 that had dropped to 50kg.
The price of seed potatoes is up £20 to £30 per ton on last year, fuel and fertiliser is up 35% while land rent is up 15 to 20%. That means farmers need to be getting a good price at the farm gate to justify growing potatoes.
This year, prices have been boosted by a massive shortage in Russia following a severe drought in the region last summer. It’s estimated that Russia is short of eight million to nine million tons of potatoes this season and 60,000 ton ships have been leaving these shores to fill the gap on a regular basis during the past few months.
For farmers, the extra demand and subsequent higher prices this creates is a bonus, but for the likes of Wilson’s Country, the process of persuading retailers to accept the price hike is a difficult job.
“It all comes down to relationships,” Mr Cunningham said.
“We have to work with our customers and keep them informed about the market price. In this economic climate, it’s not what they want to hear but other food products are going up in tandem, so we’re not alone.”
Whatever the company is doing, it seems to be working. It turned over £17m last year and 50,000 tons of potatoes.
“Between 2009 and 2010, we boosted our tonnage to 580 tons a week from 530 by penetrating the market more. It’s all evidence that it is working and has more than paid for the marketing investment.”
Further evidence of Wilson Country’s fresh approach to an ages-old market is their partnership with Albert Bartlett & Sons. The Scottish company owns the royalties for the Rooster variety of potatoes worldwide and works with Wilson’s Country to distribute them in Northern Ireland.
It’s easy to see the similarities in marketing approach between the two companies, but Wilson’s Country has yet to sign up a Hollywood star — Marcia Cross from Desperate Housewives — to appear in one of their television ads.
Whether Hollywood, Los Angeles, or Holywood, Co Down, there’s no doubt the humble spud has come a long way from being just a commodity and, given the commitment of companies such as Wilson’s Country, there’s no reason why it couldn’t give us a food export to be proud of.
Family support and dedicated staff key to success
Angus Wilson is chief executive officer and founder of Wilson’s Country. He was brought up on a farm in Richhill, Co Armagh. After going to agricultural college in Edinburgh, he came back to work on the family farm in 1986.
In 1987, Angus, left, created a new business called Wilson’s Country, selling “floury” potatoes to shops in Lisburn and Belfast. Over the years, Wilson’s Country has grown beyond his dreams; success Angus puts down to the support of his family and his team of dedicated staff.
Lewis Cunningham is the managing director of Wilson’s Country, and has more than 20 years’ experience in the freshproduce industry. He initially spent eight years in the Irish mushroom industry, gaining broad experience.
He then moved from Monaghan Mushrooms to Fane Valley, and as general manager was responsible for their oat milling, apple processing and potato prepacking operations.
He joined Wilson’s Country in 1997 as commercial director and accepted the role of managing director in 2005.