When the economy hurtled haplessly off a cliff in 2009, job losses, company closures and a general sense of fear were the order of the day. While some industries were more impacted than others, our indigenous food sector was particularly vulnerable.
You can’t beat a good recession when it comes to rallying the troops or, in this case, Irish consumers, most of whom were already feeling their own personal pain. As Ajai Chopra and his team from the International Monetary Fund were drawing up the stringent terms of Ireland’s burdensome bailout, consumers had already reined in their spending habits, become a lot more promiscuous when it came to their choice of retailer while at the same time doing what they could to support Irish food brands.
Some of this economic patriotism can be attributed to Love Irish Food, the trade organisation that represents indigenous Irish food companies and which was set up in 2008 to encourage people to buy Irish food brands.
Tapping into the prevailing zeitgeist at the time, it rallied both the indigenous food sector and consumers around a simple and instantly relatable proposition: buying Irish food brands that use Irish ingredients where possible helps Irish businesses to survive and protects Irish jobs.
Such was the potency of the message that retailers like Aldi, Lidl and Tesco – none of which had anything to do with Love Irish Food – triumphantly proclaimed in their advertising campaigns that they too were doing their bit to support Irish producers and farmers around the country. But, as they say, every little helps.
Anyone working in marketing between 2008 and 2010 will recall with a degree of horror that these were indeed desperate times.
Not only were marketing and advertising budgets slashed – or in some cases done away with altogether – but entire marketing departments were cut back or, in some cases, relocated back to Blighty.
For those left standing, it’s fair to say that the vast majority of Irish food brands could not compete on the marketing stage to the same extent as they had in the past.
For Irish food brands, big and small, being able to put the Love Irish Food logo on their packaging was a marketing Godsend as it sent out the hopeful message that if you buy this product, you are doing your bit for the economy. Fast forward nine years and Love Irish Food is still going strong and research shows that as many as 87pc of grocery shoppers actively attempt to buy Irish alternatives to imported products.
Notwithstanding the threats that Brexit presents for Irish food exporters, Love Irish Food now has over 100 member brands which, between them, employ over 15,000 staff. Some of its members include the likes of Ballygowan, Avonmore, Kilmeaden, Flahavan’s, McGargles, Keogh’s, Dairymaid, Fruice, Golden Irish, Ballymaloe and Gino’s Gelato.
In the intervening period, you could also say that the Irish food and drinks industry has gone through a mini-renaissance. Apart from the rapid growth of an indigenous craft beer and spirits industry, thanks largely to the efforts of Bord Bia and companies like SuperValu, with its Food Academy, there has been a proliferation in the number of small food manufacturers around the country. Many are in the early stages of growth and developing their own unique brands.
As marketing is central to their future success, one of the key initiatives undertaken by Love Irish Food is its annual Brand Development Award which is worth €80,000 to the winner.
Of this, €70,000 comes courtesy of the outdoor advertising company Exterion Media while the advertising agency Owens DDB weighs in with €10,000 worth of creative services. Previous winners of the Brand Development Award include the craft beer company McGargle’s, McCambridge’s Bread and Broderick’s Bars.
So who is this year’s winner? Drum roll, please!
The Sunday Independent can exclusively reveal that the winner of the Love Irish Food Brand Development Award goes to East Coast Bakehouse, the Drogheda-based biscuit manufacturer that was founded by Dragon’s Den investor Alison Cowzer and her husband Michael Carey, the former ceo of Jacobs Fruitfield and chairman of Bord Bia.
With as much as 99pc of the biscuits sold in Ireland imported from other countries, biscuit sales in Ireland are in excess of €200m a year.
East Coast Bakehouse, which operates in the new Boyne Valley Food Innovation District (BVFID) and operates the most modern biscuit- manufacturing plant in Europe, will be trying to nibble away at the Irish biscuit market while also developing overseas markets, particularly the UK.
And like many other Irish food manufacturers staring down the barrel of Brexit, East Coast Bakehouse will, hopefully, be able to draw upon that spirit of economic patriotism that tells us to buy more Irish food brands as our economy once again prepares to set sail into uncharted and, most likely, very choppy waters.