Saturday 21 October 2017

Agri-Business: Coca-Cola bigwig wants 'brand love' for Irish food

Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

Last week Roscommon man Irial Finan was in Dublin. He's a big cheese in Coca-Cola, where he heads up their multi-billion euro bottling investments division.

After 125 years in existence, Coca-Cola is still the big daddy of the soft drinks industry, with more than 500 brands and 3,500 separate products.

It has a €48bn supply chain and its product is reached for 1.8 billion times every day.

Mr Finan was speaking to the Guild of Agricultural journalists about what he thought would be important in the future for Irish food.

Unsurprisingly, his focus was all about the brand, and in branding it appears that the bar has been raised.

In Coca-Cola's eyes it's not enough just to achieve brand loyalty from the consumer anymore. In Mr Finan's opinion, the ultimate prize is now what he termed "brand love".

"Brand love is a connection that goes beyond coming back for more," he told journalists.

"It's so strong that it creates advocates. Advocates are critically important because consumers today are slow to trust. They believe each other more than they believe businesses, countries or governments. And to earn it we have to show them very clearly and repeatedly and consistently why we deserve it."

While the name above Mr Finan's door is Coca-Cola, he pointed out that the name above the Irish food industry's door was Ireland. He maintained that the only way to get consumers to love brand Ireland was by gaining their trust through complete traceability and transparency.

To be fair, the Irish agri-sector has come a long way over the years in terms of traceability. Each one of the 1.5 million cattle that are slaughtered here annually has its own unique ID tag.

The huge amount of regulations Irish farmers bemoan are largely designed to provide this traceability.

But it is the transparency of these regulations and how they are implemented that is likely to be the key issue over the coming years.

Farm inspections are now one of the most loathed aspects of running a farm. Irish farmers are subjected to up to 6,000 inspections a year, in the form of Department of Agriculture and local authority visits. They are a huge source of stress for farmers because they know that if they slip up that they will be penalised via the cheque in the post that they get from the EU.

These penalties have quadrupled since 2005 as more and more farmers fail to meet the ever increasing number of rules that govern how they are supposed to operate their farms.

Less than 5pc of these inspections are unannounced ones. The argument from farming representatives is that nature, being what it is, it is impossible for conditions to be perfect on a farm every day.

If there is a huge deluge of rain, dirty water tanks may be dangerously close to over-flowing. If cattle have been out on an out-farm, it can be difficult to spot that a tag has been missing for a few weeks. But Mr Finan had a different opinion. He said that if we are serious about getting consumers to buy into the idea that Ireland has the most sustainable food production systems in the world, we need to be able to prove it.

The ultimate proof in his mind is that every farm should be able to pass an unannounced inspection any day, any time.

He was full of praise for Bord Bia's Origin Green programme, but pointed out that if Ireland wanted to position itself in the premier league, the stakes were going to be higher.

He believes that one farm messing up has the potential to pull the whole sector down. It's a scary thought, and one that may force farmers to reassess their attitudes to unannounced inspections.

Irish Independent

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