Protecting the NZ Food Story

Daniel Eb
Daniel Eb
May 15 · 5 min read

I was a marketing manager for Xbox once. To launch new games we would host huge fan events, livestreamed to thousands online. At one event, something happened that tarnished a multi-million-dollar brand. An actor, dressed as the game’s strong-silent-type hero, took the stage, went off script and started a cringeworthy conversation with the audience. The whole episode was off-brand, out of character and, naturally, went viral. In minutes, one mistake did untold damage to a brand that took years to build.

It was a valuable lesson. As marketers, we are the guardians of our brand. Alongside the proactive campaigns that ‘tell our story’, it’s our responsibility to confront the threats to our authenticity.

Kiwi food producers are entering a new era of storytelling. That’s a good thing. We have a powerful provenance message to tell the world, best demonstrated by Beef & Lamb’s ‘Taste Pure Nature’ campaign recently launched in the US.

Our reputation is worth protecting

But storytelling goes two ways. As Mavis Mullins put it at this year’s AgriFood Week Perspective panel “stories are only good if they’re true… let’s own the stuff that’s not great and front ourselves before someone else does.”

To better understand this proactive/defensive brand balancing act, let’s look closely at a key pillar of the NZ food story; animal welfare.

We usually talk about animal suffering reactively as it hits the headlines. Our animal welfare story is often defined by industry condemnation, banning and fines. But safeguarding our reputation isn’t just about tackling the one-off’s. It’s about taking a harder road, honestly acknowledging that animal suffering is built-in to our food system and relentlessly pushing standards and practices forward.

It’s useful to think about animal suffering in farming in two ways — systemic and marginal practices. Systemic practices are hard to solve and critical to farming operations, examples include castration, bobby calf wastage and forced weaning. In contrast, marginal practices are relatively easy to solve and don’t impact most farmers. Live animal exports and cattle feedlots fit in this category.

Reducing our animal suffering footprint across both categories will be critical in the years ahead. Martin Luther King’s long arc of justice extends to animals too and the rise of animal free meat, dairy and poultry alternatives will redefine the ethics of animal food production.

If change is the only constant, then what do we change first? It makes sense to start with the marginal practices, such as live animal exports.

Before we talk authenticity and ethics, let’s talk numbers. In 2017, we shipped $94 million worth of breeding cattle and sheep around the world. That’s about 0.4% of the $22.9 billion in total annual export earnings from sheep, beef and dairy. That year, we sent 27,000 cattle from New Zealand (rated A for animal welfare) to China (rated E), Sri Lanka & Papua New Guinea (neither have an animal welfare rating). Numbers did fall in 2018 however, to 14,000.

Never mind the marketing, this is risky business from a purely economic perspective. And it’s happened before. The Kiwifruit industry’s decision to sell genetic IP to international competitors eroded the national brand and resulted in a global oversupply, driving a price collapse in the early 90’s that almost bankrupted local growers.

But here’s the rub. We can’t tell two stories at the same time. Either we’re world leaders in welfare, committed to treating our animals with respect and dignity. Or we’re not.

We are Brand NZ — our reputation is collectively built and impacts us all. If the Lord of the Rings crafts a reputation for natural beauty that helps us sell premium meat and milk, then the opposite is also true. Exposes of the horrific conditions onboard animal transport ships and allegations of malpractice undermine our reputation as food producers who farm with empathy.

The underlying message of live animal exporting is that our values are for sale. If the price is right, we’ll disregard our self-imposed duty of care and ship our animals off to markets where they’re likely to be mistreated.

The sad case of the 2017 Sri Lankan shipment of dairy breeders demonstrates this hypocrisy in action. Designed to bolster Sri Lanka’s fresh milk supply, the project has since suffered 10% mortality, significant rates of disease and bankruptcy for several local farmers. One of two things happened here. Either we failed to ensure our animals remained healthy on the journey or we failed to do our due diligence on the recipient Sri Lankan farmers. The result is the same, we have damaged our credibility as animal guardians.

This is the age of the connected, sceptical customer and authentic storytelling. Decades of goodwill and trust can be wiped out in a tweet or an Al-Jazeera documentary. The marginal gains from practices like live animal exports, simply aren’t worth the risks to our collective reputation in the long-run. The farmers and marketers working hard to build the NZ food story deserve better.

As we reach for a national food strategy, we’re going to hit decision points about every aspect of our model in the coming years. We need to accept that some practises just don’t have a future in the complex, competitive world of modern food and farming. It will not be a painless transition. People will get angry, infrastructure will become redundant and short-term profits will be lost. We need to have the courage to confront the ingrained parts of our model that threaten the incredible story we’re trying to tell the world.

As we hit each decision point, let’s remember that the best marketing doesn’t happen on camera, across social media or in the advertising exec’s suite. It happens in the supply chain and around the boardroom. Truly resilient, remarkable brands lead with their values, building customer trust through their actions and standing by their word.

In a world of fake news and fake meat, authenticity is king. Marketing in this world means having the guts to disrupt our own model when our values call for it.

Written by

Daniel Eb

Kiwi farm boy. Let’s talk social justice, digital comms, food and future.

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