Will we still say Norfolk turkeys are bootiful?

Mention the name Bernard Matthews and the world thinks of turkeys but has this international brand been damaged by the country's first case of a potentially lethal strain of bird flu? Rural affairs editor MICHAEL POLLITT considers the implications for this remarkable Norfolk institution.

Bootiful.

It was a marketing slogan coined almost by chance almost 30 years ago but it helped to transform the fortunes of Bernard Matthews.

It was the personal decision of Mr Matthews to reject a smart city advertising agency's advice and feature himself in a television commercial, wearing a Norfolk jacket. He then voiced one of the most memorable soundbites, “Bootiful” which has become instantly identifiable in the advertising world.

It was a brilliant success and over the next few years, Mr Matthews and Norfolk turkeys became one of the recognisable images.

But then last week, confirmation of a highly-pathogen strain of bird flu in shed 10 of the 22 buildings containing half-grown turkeys at Holton, near Halesworth, was a massive spanner in the works. While health experts and scientists give soothing messages, will consumers shy from the “bootiful” range produced by Bernard Matthews?

Is this a second and further piece of bad luck - after the public relations damage caused by since convicted turkey catchers filmed abusing birds at Haveringland last autumn.

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As a major brand, stocked in every supermarket in the country, it has become a high-profile potential victim of bad publicity.

According to a company insider, Mr Matthews “is said to be keeping a very close eye on affairs” but the challenge is to move ahead and any repair damage to the brand.

However, it has been a quite remarkable success story. Mr Matthews, who in a story almost as well known as that slogan, started in 1950 with a clutch of 20 turkeys eggs bought for 50 shillings. His business, which almost spans the world, had turnover of £457m last year, profits of more than £26m, and employed about 7,500 staff.

He has undoubtedly been shrewd, particularly with his expansion plans in the 1990s when he acquired a significant competitor. And his moves into Europe, while not always immediately successful, have turned out to be far-sighted with rising sales in Hungary and Germany.

But, the real achievement was in his home market because by the late 1980s a remarkable 95pc of consumers associated “bootiful,” or “Norfolk” or “Bernard” with Matthews turkeys. Only Colman's Mustard had a similar ringing endorsement.

On the back of that platform, Norfolk's turkey king Mr Matthews widened the range of products - moving into lamb imported and processed from New Zealand - and then in an ever wider circle of turkey and other white meat products.

Now, the privately-owned Bernard Matthews, still based at Great Witchingham, has carved out a real niche by a constant flood of innovation. The move into organic turkeys by taking over a specialist producer, Cherryridge, near Cromer, last December shows that the “king” of the turkey world has lost nothing of his enthusiasm for business even at the age of 76.

When the US giant, Sara Lee was stalking Matthews seven years ago, then a publicly-quoted company, the chairman, as he likes to be known, lost no time in fighting a bruising corporate battle. He had the last word as he then took the company private.

And, now if the first outbreak of H5N1 or bird flu has been safely contained at Holton, then this might just be a relatively minor footnote in the company history. In January 1991, Matthews had a case of the same highly-pathogenic strain in a turkey shed when 8,000 birds were slaughtered. On that occasion, the other birds at the Weston Longville site were not infected and very rapidly the business returned to the growth path.

So just how fickle are shoppers? In the immediate aftermath of the BSE or “mad cow crisis” in 1996, when one supermarket slashed the price of beef, it cleared the shelves within minutes. So, maybe consumers have more sense.