DINING OUT ON BRITISH FOOD - Forget stodgy school dinners and fish and chips. Patrick Davis, chief executive of Food from Britain, talks to John-Pierre Joyce about how British food is taking menus around the world by storm

At first glance Patrick Davis appears to have a thankless task.

At first glance Patrick Davis appears to have a thankless task.



As chief executive of marketing quango Food From Britain it is his job

to help UK food and drink firms export their produce overseas and

encourage foreign buyers to develop a taste for British fare.



With British food being associated in most people’s minds with bangers

and mash and the continuing fall-out from the BSE beef scare, that task

looks almost impossible.



Not so, says Davis. British food and drink enjoys the highest reputation

abroad for quality and diversity, and new product ranges such as frozen

convenience foods lead the way in anticipating lifestyle changes and

consumer trends.



Britain is now the sixth largest exporter of food and drink, and global

exports are worth around pounds 10 billion every year. Despite the beef

ban, exports climbed by one per cent last year with noticeable increases

in the prepared cereals, beer, soft drinks, cheese and fish sectors.

Even odder is the fact that the French - those pickiest of eaters -

import more British food than any other country in the world - to the

tune of pounds 1.6 billion a year.



Davis is clearly proud of Food From Britain’s role in the industry’s

success and that the organisation itself, founded in 1983, is now 53 per

cent funded by food and drink firms and only 47 per cent by

government.



That measure of confidence from the industry is, at least in part, due

to the culture of communications instilled into Food From Britain by

Davis after he arrived there in 1994 from Premier Teas where he was

managing director.



’As with any business, if you decide to really focus on something then

you have a far greater chance of succeeding, and reputation and how you

communicate is terribly important,’ he explains. ’Three years ago we set

out to say that we provide a very distinct service and that we can help

British food and drink companies. That single-minded message is at the

core of everything we do.’



In order to reinforce that message, Davis and his team revamped Food

From Britain’s corporate literature to make it look more like a business

consultancy than a government body and hired Grayling to help attract

companies through the business and trade press, radio and

television.



In addition, Food From Britain’s staff in the UK and across its nine

offices overseas are encouraged to sell the organisation’s services as

well as its customers’ products.



Davis argues that promoting Food From Britain and British food and drink

have to go hand-in-hand: ’You can’t persuade companies to go overseas

with the help of our organisation if they don’t think that Food From

Britain has a good reputation. I think it’s a question of saying ’this

is what we do, look at the success of what we’ve achieved and see how we

can help you’. The more you can communicate that the better.’



He also believes that in the battle for market share, generic and brand

promotion must work together. ’Four or five years ago a lot of our

activity was promoting British foods, so promotion would involve hanging

Union Jacks in a store with bottles of Johnny Walker and humbugs and

people thought they had done the job,’ he says. ’The reality is that

consumers, and indeed the trade, want to concentrate on individual

products. We support the brands and we support things collectively if

necessary. Again, you decide what is best for that customer and best for

that product.’



Deciding what the key messages are and what strengths to play to is

particularly important when attempting to promote British food and drink

in different countries. Two years ago, for instance, Food From Britain

opened an office in Tokyo. Although potentially huge, Davis admits that

Japan has been a difficult market to crack - partly because traditional

eating habits remain strong.



But with targeted selling and the right communications approach, even

the Japanese are beginning to discover the delights of British

cuisine.



’It’s all about focus,’ says Davis. ’And with PR you have to decide what

your strengths are, how you are going to talk about them, and then

centre on them.



’British food cannot be packed into one box and wrapped up with the

Union Jack. We sell a whole range of concepts. It depends what the buyer

is looking for. For example, alcopops is something that has become quite

popular in the UK, and we are pretty good at making them. Now you can’t

put a Union Jack around that, can you?’



Although Food From Britain maintains a small PR team of two, Davis sees

it as part of everyone’s job to speak on behalf of the organisation and

the industry it represents. ’Everyone at Food From Britain is capable of

talking about their own particular area, and PR is a very important part

of our work,’ he says. ’If we aren’t prepared to talk about what we do

then we don’t deserve to get new customers. If you are providing a

product and that product is a service then you need to communicate it to

your customers.’



Davis sees his own role as that of a ’British ambassador for food’. But

despite a self-confessed weakness for exotic prepared foods, he does not

regard himself as a galloping gourmet or even a food industry

expert.



’I’m really in the middle, and I’m a businessman,’ he says. ’I’ve been

in the food and drink business all my life and I understand how it

operates.



That is terribly important, because if I was just a foodie or a detached

government representative I don’t think that we would be able to talk to

companies in quite the same way as we do. And in terms of communications

it’s important, because if I walk into a company I can talk about what

we are doing and understand their business.’



The biggest test of Food From Britain’s PR strategy came last year

during the BSE crisis. As the health scare took hold and the European

Commission declared a beef import ban it looked as if the whole of the

British food export industry was at risk. But, as Davis explains, Food

From Britain’s core message about the range and diversity of British

food helped to prevent the crisis from spreading.



’Undoubtedly in the first few months of BSE it did have a knock on

effect, as you would expect,’ he recalls. ’We said that the issue of BSE

clearly needed to be sorted out, but we wanted to demonstrate at the

same time that British food was about a whole range of products and not

just about beef. That’s the advantage that we’ve got. We have so many

strengths to which we can play that I think any other country that had

the problem of BSE would have fared far worse than we did.



’The other thing is that supermarkets have insisted on quality

management that is second to none, which has helped us recover far

quicker than I think we would have done. And I am convinced that once we

have sorted out how we are going to manage this whole area of meat

safety I think we will come out at the end of it stronger than anyone

else in the world.’



SAVOY: DEVELOPING TASTES FOR BRITISH FARE



The traditional image of British cuisine as consisting of roast beef,

fish and chips and little else may be fast disappearing abroad, but it

still permeates perception of the food and drink industry within the

UK.



In an effort to familiarise the UK public with the range of culinary

opportunities available, Food From Britain has teamed up with The Savoy

Group to launch its first Summer Festival of Food. For the whole of

August chefs at The Savoy Group’s properties - the Berkeley, Claridge’s,

the Connaught, the Savoy, the Lygon Arms and Simpson’s-in-the-Strand -

will create special fixed priced menus using British ingredients.



According to Food From Britain’s public relations manager Charlotte

Lawson the festival will prove to be a testing of the waters for what

could become a national annual event.



’My dream is to have a festival of British food and drink incorporating

restaurants, catering organisations, tourist authorities and airlines

right across the country so that we get a real spotlight on what this

country has to offer,’ she explains



’This must be the only thing we don’t celebrate in this country. We have

all sorts of ’special’ weeks and months but we’ve forgotten about our

own food and drink history. So the festival is directed more at ordinary

consumers and will tackle some of those old prejudices against British

food.’



But there is also a serious business objective to the event. Part of

Food From Britain’s role is to promote speciality products within the UK

and introduce local food and drink suppliers to larger national

distributors.



The festival, therefore, will provide an opportunity for speciality

producers to supply the Savoy chain for the first time and gain wider

recognition.



’The Savoy Group has a wonderful reputation for food and drink and it’s

a very British institution as well,’ says Lawson. ’But more than that,

it can offer the start of a wider promotion.’



For its part, The Savoy Group sees the value of promoting British food

and drink as a means of increasing traffic through its restaurants.



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