Why shouldn’t an ethical business market itself?
Jay Rayner, the Observer’s restaurant critic, reviewed the Riverford Cottage Field Farm, the restaurant spin-off of organic vegetable box scheme Riverford, in his latest piece. What’s this got to with marketing, you say? Well Rayner, who likes to appear outspoken, opens the piece with this:
Have you ever lifted an organic veg box and wondered why it was so damn heavy? It’s because it is weighed down by the hopes, fears and aspirations of the entirety of Britain’s guilt-sodden middle classes. That and the cannonball-like swede that always seems to end up in there. I cannot understand why a serious cook would allow a random collection of ingredients into the house, and hate the smug satisfaction that those who order them exude. They think they are doing something to save the planet. They aren’t. They are making affluent lifestyle choices and supporting apparently alternative business – but ones built entirely on conventional marketing strategies.’
This isn’t the place to debate the rights and wrongs of vegetable boxes (for what it’s worth, I get a vegetable box, but am well aware I’m not saving the planet; as I’m not a ‘serious cook’, I quite like the challenge of being sent whatever is in season and trying to work out what to do with it – kohlrabi, anyone?)
What I found interesting was his final comment – that an ‘alternative business’ is somehow undermined by using ‘conventional marketing strategies’.
I went to visit Riverford for a piece in Marketing mag nearly six years ago. It was a much smaller business at the time, but two things stood out: first, that it really was trying to achieve something (it wasn’t trying to save the world, just get people interested in cooking and eating fresh food); and second, that Guy Watson, the guy in charge, was a seriously talented businessman.
Is it a bad thing that Riverford has used a franchising strategy plus smart branding, online and word-of-mouth activity to build his business? Would it be better if Riverford were still a small collection of farms in Devon? That might suit some in the hairshirt brigade (and Rayner’s patrician outlook), but it isn’t going to help Watson achieve his goals.
The thing about conventional marketing strategies is that, by and large work, they work. If an alternative business is to remain in business, why shouldn’t it use marketing?
In fact, Rayner’s view is a little out-of-date – there are plenty of ‘alternative businesses’ building themselves into bona fide brands (eg Divine Chocolate), and even some general ‘good causes’ (Fairtrade, for example) using marketing principles to raise awareness of some of the issues around food. Maybe they do tap into middle-class guilt (why are only the middle classes guilty?), but as long as nobody thinks that they can change the world with a few purchases, isn’t it a good trade-off to pander to those feelings in return for a bit of consumer education? And given that the recession has allowed far fewer of us to make ‘affluent lifestyle choices’, those businesses that have used branding to build a relationship with consumers are more likely t0 survive the cull. That, surely, is a good thing.