It has been another successful year for Ornua, underpinned by the continued performance of the Kerrygold brand. This remains the outstanding success story of Irish food branding now into its seventh decade. It is the successful butter brand in many markets and one of a limited number of European brands to really succeed in the US market.

Irish dairy farmers are a huge part of this success and correctly proud of the brand. It is looked at from other sectors of Irish agriculture as the ultimate ambition and the question is regularly posed if we can do it in dairy, why have we never succeeded with beef?

Reasons for success

There is no simple answer to that question but a few factors were instrumental in establishing the Kerrygold brand. One was timing, another was ownership structure and the third was the vision and energy of the promoter, Tony O’Reilly a famous rugby player with considerable charisma and business acumen.

Being established since the early 1960s gives the brand heritage. The most durable and successful food and drink brands such as Coca Cola and Heinz have a long tradition and established brand image. Kerrygold now belongs in that company. When Kerrygold was established, the world was entering the post war consumer era in which society in Europe and North America had growing disposable income and expanding tastes.

The other element that enabled Kerrygold become established and underpins its sustained success is the fact that it was co-op owned meaning that it was effectively a national brand. In recent years, some dairy companies have attempted to make solo runs with an alternative brand to Kerrygold but success has been limited and so far Kerrygold has withstood the competition from alternatives.

Could it work for beef?

The Irish beef industry has only become really established in the retail sector over the past 25 years and unlike dairy processing is based on private companies. These businesses are focused on their own bottom line and don’t have farmer shareholders. That means that very often the biggest competitor for an Irish beef exporter in international markets is another rival beef processor from Ireland. Against this backdrop, it is more difficult to develop a national beef brand.

Also, supermarkets are much more focused now on developing own label branding for food than when Kerrygold was established.

Notwithstanding the obvious difficulties, an initiative is currently underway in an attempt to build an Irish beef brand with the application to register Irish grass-fed beef as a PGI with the EU. When this is achieved, it will be an opportunity for beef to replicate the dairy Kerrygold story. It will be a difficult though not impossible challenge and farmers should not expect overnight success. Also as with dairy, even if a beef brand is successfully established, huge volumes of product will have to be sold outside the brand.

Given the business structure, perhaps a beef brand will work more like Irish whiskey operates as an umbrella brand for several whiskey manufacturers. Either way, building a successful brand is the route to maximising the value of the product but doing so is a long and difficult road.