Authenticity and Yorkshire Puddings

Tesco’s “Fake Farms” strategy has been back in the news recently, following the broadcast of a TV documentary showing chickens sold under their exclusive Willow Farms brand being packed in unhygienic conditions – and perhaps not appearing quite so “exclusive” as Tesco would have us believe. The commercial impact of these revelations will have to be seen, but Tesco’s recent recovery suggests that shoppers have not been put off by the previous negative publicity. In fact, according to Tesco boss, Dave Lewis, the seven “Farm Brands” are now appearing in 70% of customer baskets.

Is authenticity over-rated?

On the one hand, provenance is an increasingly important factor in driving shopper behaviour. At a retail level, this is evident in many ways, from the growth in farm stores, to the multiples’ increasing emphasis instore on locally sourced produce (Indeed, provenance is absolutely central to Morrison’s current “Morrison’s Makes It” strategy, enabling it to capitalise, at long last, on its unique vertical integration). Similarly, at a branded level, we are increasingly used to brands closely associated with their founders such as The Black Farmer, Levi Roots and Ella’s Kitchen.

In such circumstances, is there any place for invented brand characters, created to embody the values and personality of the brand, but making no claim to be real?

In the mid-1990s, we created just such a character for a new brand of traditional British products. The thumbnail image is one of our early concept versions.

As well as being consistent with classic British fayre, the brand needed to evoke a sense of nostalgia, harking back to a calmer way of life where food was more wholesome and families had the time to sit down and enjoy a meal together.

Her name was Aunt Bessie

Today, her products can be found across multiple categories, from her original frozen Yorkshire Puddings, and other assorted components of the good old Sunday roast, to home-baking and puddings. Her distinctive design gives her range great visibility. We are very proud, and rather fond, of her, but we have been pondering whether she could be launched today.

The accusation against Willow Farms and its associates is that Tesco set out to deceive its customers. Dave Lewis refutes this arguing that, “More credit should be given to customers – they understand that a single farming entity is not possible to supply a business the size of Tesco……… They give customers a value and quality they appreciate”.

Aunt Bessie never claimed to be real – not in any literal sense. However, she was, and remains, the perfect embodiment of a brand promise encompassing quality, experience, tradition and, above all, caring, sharing family values. As a brand, Aunt Bessie’s has always enjoyed an absolute integrity that transcends the reality, for example, of a real-life celebrity chef smiling from the front of a cuppa-soup. Aunt Bessie’s has also always delivered at a functional level, delivering great Yorkshire Puds. to generations of Sunday cooks who simply can’t get their batter to rise.

Consumers have never believed Aunt Bessie was real, but they absolutely believe in the brand. How real can you get?