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Who Buys My Food? The UEA project putting marketing power in the hands of East Anglia's small food producers

PUBLISHED: 23:15 14 September 2016 | UPDATED: 23:32 14 September 2016

Toby Rush with hens from Rymer Farm. Picture: SUPPLIED.

Toby Rush with hens from Rymer Farm. Picture: SUPPLIED.

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For many small food producers, the world of marketing and branding can sometimes seem to be shrouded in mystery. But a new project at the University of East Anglia is seeking to change that - and it's doing it for free. MARK SHIELDS reports.

Prof Andrew Fearne, professor of value chain management at the University of East Anglia.Prof Andrew Fearne, professor of value chain management at the University of East Anglia.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that every single company in possession of a good product needs a buyer – and the better you know that customer, the more effectively you can sell to them.

Big companies spend millions collecting and acquiring information which can give them that invaluable insight, and make the difference between a product failing or flying.

But the financial firepower required can price out the smaller supplier, whose attentions are focused on the day-to-day pressures of running their business at the meeting point of two of the most competitive sectors – food and retail.

Now, a new project at the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Business School is seeking to level the playing field by allowing smaller food suppliers the insight that has so long been the preserve of the chains and multinationals – for free.

‘Insight helped me to understand my customers’

Like many farmers, Toby Rush has a lot on his plate – juggling his eggs business, 32,000 hens and a 600-acre arable farm.

So by his own admission, marketing was not always at the top of his list of priorities.

“It’s interesting, but it’s something that’s easy to put off if you get an order at 7am that needs to be on wheels by 1pm,” he said.

Mr Rush’s family business, Rymer Farm eggs, employs nine people and turns over around £1m. It supplies three lines to 27 of Tesco’s larger stores, and recently struck a deal for one line in a further 48 Tesco Express stores in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex.

The shopper insight report Prof Fearne and his team supplied helped him to refine his promotions.

“The shopper insight report explained to me how my principal customer looks at me,” said Mr Rush.

“It was rewarding that they looked at me as a premium supplier, and while we didn’t have a huge depth among the customer base, we did have tremendous loyalty.”

Once shoppers tasted the product, they liked it and bought it again. So how to persuade shoppers to make that initial purchase?

Prof Fearne advised being more targeted: out went the buy-one-get-one-free offers, and in its place came a targeted newspaper campaign with money-off coupons.

“That gave us a chance to tell a story about our brand, which was good for getting our name out there, and improving customer recognition,” said Mr Rush.

Who Buys My Food? builds on work done by Professor Andrew Fearne over the past decade, and is the product of a link-up between the university, Tesco and other partners, to give producers insight into their customers from more than two million Tesco Clubcard accounts.

The scheme is intended to be mutually beneficial for all parties: the food producers gain insight and boost sales; Tesco’s stores sell more and support smaller suppliers; and the UEA students and researchers get first-hand experience of analysing data and advising companies.

“For so many small producers, it can be like driving in fog. We don’t want to just turn the fog lights on – we want to get rid of the fog completely,” said Prof Fearne.

“If you want to increase your chance of success anywhere then you need to better understand your customer – Tesco – and your customer’s customer, the end consumer,” he said. “How do people make decisions without that data?”

Prof Fearne has run a similar project over the past decade at the University of Kent, helping more than 600 small suppliers nationally, before he moved to the UEA last year.

The insight includes advice on how to promote products more effectively.

Simple examples of breakthroughs include moving product information from the side of a tub of ice cream to the top (“No one could see it when it was in the freezers”) to more counter-intuitive advice to put prices up (“If your product is seen as a premium one, reducing prices can put people off as they think it’s cheap”).

Prof Fearne is now keen to work with more local suppliers in East Anglia, and for them to make use of the resources of the business school.

Studying the millions of Clubcard data points, and understanding key metrics such as market penetration and repeat buyer rates, can help suppliers make smarter decisions, he argues.

At a time when retailers are scrutinising the value of every line, those decisions could make or break a brand.

“These are often family-run businesses that go back decades, and they love their products, and they have all kinds of certificates and awards, and yet they are stifled because they don’t know where they are going,” said Prof Fearne.

“Maybe people don’t see them, maybe their pack is too boring, maybe their price is too expensive, maybe they are in the wrong place in the store,” said Prof Fearne. “Producers simply can’t afford to make those decisions without understanding the implications.”

Suppliers can find out more www.uea.ac.uk/norwich-business-school/research/who-buys-my-food

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