Darragh McCullough: Wanted... someone with the vision to create a global brand for Irish beef


Photo: Clare Keogh
Photo: Clare Keogh
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

It's ironic that beef farmers are the poor relations compared to their dairy brethren these days.

In the middle of the last century it was the beef farmers that looked down on the dairy farmers. The serious beef farmers back in Ireland of the 40s and 50s wouldn't dream of squatting down beside their cows morning and evening and risk getting shat on. That was the lot of the small dairy farmer who for one reason or another didn't have the land or the capital to buy and sell cattle.

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Part of the problem for dairy men back then was the lack of refrigeration, and so only a handful of dairy farmers were close enough to the cities to supply fresh milk, with the vast majority of the rest of Ireland's dairy output being churned into butter. This surplus kept Irish butter prices low and ensured meagre returns for dairy farmers.

That back story adds another layer of irony to the news last week that sales of Kerrygold butter have topped €1bn for the first time.

For what is Kerrygold except a master class in the power of branding and marketing?

No one disputes that Irish butter is as good as any out there, but I've never been able to tell the taste difference between the own brand butters on the shelves of our supermarkets and Kerrygold.

In fact, it's possible that the basic product often comes out of the same factory.

Of course the real success of Kerrygold has never been about sales in Irish supermarkets.

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In much the same way that the prophet is never appreciated in their own lands, great quality butter was just taken as a given by the Irish.

It's only when it's placed on the shelf beside its milk-white competitors on the shelves of Walmart or Lidl Germany that it can begin to stand out. Savvy marketing has resulted in the dream ticket of a market leading product that allows it to charge up to twice the price of it's nearest rivals.

However, it took the vision and leadership of Tony O'Reilly to make this sea-change happen.

In the same way that Denis Brosnan and Michael O'Leary had the drive and charisma to rewrite the rule books for their respective industries, Tony O'Reilly had a vision that probably seemed preposterous at the time.

'Flashy' packs

Indeed, his request in 1962 for a marketing budget of nearly €2m in today's money would have seemed outrageous for what many back then still considered a mysterious science.

Remember, this was a time when the average dairy farmer still didn't produce much more than 10,000 litres of milk a year.

The basic idea was to cut out the middle men and blenders by packing Irish butter into flashy little foil packs aimed at the housewife, rather than the 28lb blocks that had dominated the Irish butter trade up to that point.

With Kerrygold being to butter what Guinness is to stout, it seems strange that the brand name nearly didn't make it past the board.

One board member had the temerity to suggest that the alternatives of Buttercup or Shannongold were preferable since there where "no cows in Kerry at all".

But O'Reilly pushed for the Kerrygold option because "it had a strong K, it was very well recognised and had an obvious Irish background".

Over the following decade milk output doubled in Ireland. But the more interesting figure is that sales values trebled over the same period.

The story of Kerrygold since then is legendary, prompting one to wonder whether the same could be done for the Irish beef sector. The parallels are all there. We produce a massive amount of beef for the size of the country. Despite all the woes of the sector in recent decades, Ireland is still the biggest exporter of beef in the Northern hemisphere.

It also happens to be some of the best quality beef on the planet. Not only is it tasty and healthy, we now realise that Ireland's grasslands ensure the beef is some of the most sustainable in the world.

Irish beef poses no threat to rainforests, or water supplies, nor should it rely on grains imported from around the planet (although that's a discussion for another day).

Every Irish farmer is tired of hearing this tune - the problem is that nobody has succeeded in wrapping up that story in a brand that secures enough of a premium in the world's top markets to make Irish beef farming rewarding.

What's missing? Is it the fact that Tony O'Reilly had the support and funds of the co-ops behind him to plough money into the Kerrygold story? Or is it that Irish dairy is just inherently more competitive than Irish beef?

If the latter holds water, then there would be no business case for the likes of Guinness, Jameson, Parma ham, or Champagne. They can all be produced elsewhere for less in theory, but it's all about the heritage and quality.

Irish beef has heritage and quality in its genes. Where's the vision?

Darragh McCullough farms in Meath and presents RTÉ's Ear To The Ground television programme

the story of kerrygold is legendary and one wonders if its success could be replicated by the irish beef sector

Indo Farming