Farm Ireland

Monday 23 April 2018

'We must defend and diversify' - Bord Bia's Helen King

Helen King, Bord Bia’s director of consumer insight and innovation
Helen King, Bord Bia’s director of consumer insight and innovation

As a 16-year-old American high-schooler, Helen King, had zero interest in spending "summer vacation" on a farm in the heart of the Irish midlands.

But her emigrant parents, John from Clifden, Co Galway and Anna from Ferbane, Co Offaly, then settled in New York State, dragged their youngest child onto the plane anyway.

Little did she know, it was a trip that would lead to an award-winning professional career in the Irish food industry.

She returned to the family farm for the next two summers and then applied to study economics at Trinity College Dublin.

After landing her first job with Cadbury's, Ms King developed a fascination about how people make food decisions. That natural curiosity eventually led her to Bord Bia where she has been at the helm of consumer marketing for the last 14 years.

As the Director of Consumer Insight and Innovation, Ms King's vision, and consumer-centred approach to business has turned cutting edge insight into actionable plans for many meat and dairy enterprises. She has also helped guide Ireland's global reputation as a premium supplier of food and drinks throughout Europe and the United States.

Ms King has also played an instrumental role in expanding Ireland's "Origin Green" promise to China, Canada and the Middle East.

Although the recession and digital boom have brought many great difficulties to the Irish food industry, she says the uncertainty of Brexit may pose the greatest challenge of all.

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"Brexit will be incredibly challenging. Our strategy is two-fold, firstly to defend as much of our companies competing in the market as possible and then also diversification," she said.

Sitting in 'The Thinking House', Bord Bia's new state-of-the-art research centre, she said it's important for all food and drink producers to look at other markets.

"We can't walk away from Britain, we're heavily dependent on the UK 40pc of beef exports goes there but as we go towards other markets hopefully we can take that dependence away. We can maintain what we are doing in Britain but we must grow other opportunities elsewhere," she said.

Although China is not considering a "meat eating country," Ms King is confident that consumer trends and the markets are moving in that direction. "It's about targeting markets and communicating the benefits of Irish beef and ultimately make sure that Irish beef is at a premium positioning vis a vis our competitive countries," she said.

Bord Bia are also looking at other markets for dairy particularly in the Middle East and India.

"The Middle East is really getting quite busy, I spent time in Saudi Arabia, Dubai and we are going back to Iran to look at the consumer market so we know the market is opening, they seem interested, the feedback is that there are opportunities," she said.

This type of consumer exploration will involve Ms King immersing herself in their daily lives.

"We have lived with consumers, slept on floors, spent days with them, gone shopping with them, prepared meals and sat down with their families to understand the culture that they live in, we want to know how dairy actually fits into their food patterns and use that knowledge to make Irish dairy successful in those markets," she said.

Strengthening trade relationships with other EU countries is also vital to ensuring a soft landing on Brexit.

"Food producers will have to treat the UK differently. It may not happen for two or three years but the trading environment will be quite different. Right now, buying British is huge over there. All retailers are pushing the British message. Yes Sainsbury's and Tesco will carry Irish beef but they're not going to be screaming about it so it will be very hard for us to identify ourselves as a premium offering," she said.

However, she said beef markets are growing in Germany, Italy and, to a lesser extent, the Netherlands. "German retailers love Ireland, they're happy to promote us at a premium position that's where we need to look to maintain shelf space and still be priced at a reasonable level," she said.

"From an insight and brand perspective we must be incredibly knowledgeable of what is going on and navigate change. The UK is becoming more British, which means a much more challenging environment for Irish producers," he said.

"Uncertainty is the big elephant in the room. As time goes on we're getting a little more worried. Sterling is hurting us.

"All Irish business must strengthen their position to maintain share and know the category they are competing it to make sure they stand out on shelf better than their competitors, " she said.

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