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Weekly Comment

Marketing the risky way

06-Feb-2006

Nationality is a dangerous brand.

For Arla, embroiled alongside Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten, and Denmark itself, both on charge for bigotry, nationality has been a major selling point.

Barely a consumer could name Arla as the maker of Lurpak, one of the world's leading butter brands, but almost everyone knows that the silver butter is Danish.

In dairy, as in meats, being Danish meant being good.

Dig deeper into the association and national reputation moves quickly into the picture. This is not simply a marketing device built around greener pastures or greater equipment investments. Here, stitched into the notion that Danish is fine, is a perception of national strengths.

Denmark, along with its Scandanavian neighbours, has been serious about social justice. It is a vigorously ethical nation, where integrity prevails and equality is subscribed to as a guiding principle.

Generally, the Danish are well-liked abroad and well-respected, with little prejudice against them anywhere, let alone backlash.

Until now: when the act of one newspaper editor has come to represent a nation. When Jyllands Posten published cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist it was facing its readership. It may have been Denmark's leading broad-sheet newspaper, but readers do not tend to stay with a newspaper broadcasting a moral philosophy they object to.

Thus, insofar as Jyllands Posten's cartoons did not knock its circulation, bigotry is abroad in Denmark: the readership as blind to it as the newspaper's management. That is a long way from saying all Danes are bigoted - as much of a bigotted nonsense as suggesting that to be Muslim is to be a terrorist.

But it is undeniable that these cartoons were run, almost without ripple, until the OUTSIDE world reacted. Inside Denmark, few saw a problem with them. And that reads badly for the readers of Jyllands Posten as well as the journalists involved.

Indeed, even before this incident, word was creeping abroad that Denmark's grand tradition of social justice was looking meaner than of old, faced with a new and growing Muslim community. The tensions were real.

For Arla, trading on a Danish tradition to be proud of, such cracks represented risk writ large. Especially as a large "Danish" player in the Muslim world.

For national reputation and nation are inexorably entwined.

Whether its French wine being poured down American toilets, or MacDonalds being sacked in southern France, national enmities play straight through to national brands.

And in food, national branding abounds.

TV has not yet been treated to pictures of washing powders being binned in geopolitical protests. Procter & Gamble has never traded on nationality in its brands.

Consumers barely know where the group is domiciled, and less still which brands it makes. Unilever's ice-cream is a global brand, but no sign of national branding there.

In the end, the company that uses its nationality as a selling point is tying its fortunes forever to the acts of its governments, its newspapers, and even its minorities, from football hooligans to travelers' abroad.

And in food, that makes for many corporate fortunes enmeshed with geopolitical tensions, and some real coincidence of time and place.

The sum is that this is one marketing tool that is definitely not cost-free.

If Lurpak were to butter, as Walls' is to ice-cream, it might still be on the supermarket shelves in Saudi Arabia today.

Formerly of the FT, BBC and EIU, Jenny Luesby has been editor-in-chief at Decision News Media since September 2003.

If you would like to comment on the article, please contact jenny.luesby@decisionnews.com

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