“The smaller guys haven’t had the opportunity or the infrastructure to get a foothold in export markets” Bullseye CEO Conor Hyde fighting the good fight in France with a smile
“Ah…Kerrygold! You have zis in Ireland too?” So said a French placement student character from a classic Kerrygold advert from many years ago. Visiting Ireland for the first time, he is surprised to discover that an Irish food brand famous in his own country was just as famous in Ireland.
But as anyone who has perused the aisles of Intermarché, Leader Price or Leclerc while on holidays in France will have seen, there isn’t a lot of Irish food produce visible on France’s supermarket shelves. Apart from the occasional “Irish” mega-brands such as Baileys Irish Cream Liqueur or Jameson Whiskey (respectively British and French owned), the presence of Irish food and drink brands in French retail outlets is a rare sight indeed.
It is into this unfulfilled gap in the market that Cork-based food brand marketing company Bullseye launched itself, opening up an office in France earlier this year.
“We’re working with the food sector in Ireland a long time,” says Bullseye CEO Conor Hyde. “All of us are – both before and after setting up Bullseye in 2001. We’ve noticed that it’s very hard to get Irish food brands abroad. Our exports are increasing year-on-year and we’re up to over €9 billion at this point, but if you dig into that figure, you’ll find that 80% of those exports are just general commodity products.”
In other words, Irish food exports are strong, but the vast majority of them are exported by the tonne as pure commodity produce and not as retail brands.
“So we would see huge opportunity to grow Irish food brands, as opposed to selling food abroad… There are some mega-brands like Kerrygold that are doing very well, but what we’re trying to do is to grow the SME food brands abroad… The smaller guys haven’t had the opportunity or the infrastructure to get a foothold in export markets.”
Bullseye comprises five highly experienced food-marketing experts and the service they provide is one of consultancy, training and mentoring support to the Irish SME food sector, as well as to several state enterprise and development agency bodies.
In setting up an office in France, they are not following the typical path of an Irish company, but Hyde and his colleagues could see the unexploited potential of having the world’s 5th-largest economy virtually on our doorstep within a common currency area that has been decades in developing. In other words, Bullseye took a natural step that many Irish companies don’t. So far at least, it’s going well.
“We’ve set up our clients into clusters,” says Hyde, “and we’ve started forming our clients into temperature groups – so we put the frozen foods guys together, the chilled guys together and the ambient guys together and there’s strength in numbers then when they approach retailers together and they can say ‘We’re here, we can offer you all these products. Are you interested in our range?’”
One of the SME brands that Hyde mentions as having scored some good success lately is Irish Atlantic Sea Salt. The West Cork company is one of the very few that produce sea salt in Ireland. The climate of the South-West coast of Ireland isn’t as conducive to producing sea-salt as that of the much drier and sunnier West coast of France and the Irish product is in a market of numerous competitors, many of whom are selling at a much lower price than the Irish imported variety.
Why, therefore, should there be demand for a more expensive import in a land where sea-salt is so plentiful and cheap that it’s on the shopping list of many Irish visitors when they’re on holiday in France? The answer is in the beauty of branding:
“There’s plenty of sea-salt available in France from all over the world – from the Himalayas to Portugal, but up to now, you couldn’t get Irish Atlantic Sea Salt!”
What Hyde and his colleagues know is that there is a hunger for Irish produce in France and the rest of Continental Europe. Ireland, he says, has a strong reputation as a “green natural island out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean” – a reputation that Bullseye is aiming to capitalize on.
“We’ve run quite a few trade events over in Europe. We’ve run them in France, Germany and elsewhere and what we kept on hearing back from people at the shows was ‘I love the products, I’d love to be able to get them, but I can’t get them anywhere’. That was the genesis of us deciding to open the office in France:
“We’re food marketeers. We’ve been doing a lot of great work in Ireland for decades and now I think it’s time to get demand off the island and into Europe.”Their choice of La Rochelle as the location for their French HQ was a natural one, as Conor Hyde explains:
“We ran a number of large food shows in La Rochelle over a number of years in conjunction with Cork County Council,” says Hyde, “and that gave us the contacts on the ground in terms of business links and infrastructure in La Rochelle to set up an office there.”
It was through this activity too that Bullseye were able to get a snapshot of the appetite of the French public for Irish food produce. The exercise amounted to informal but invaluable test marketing the French public. They found that French consumers don’t have a protectionist view of their own food and are delighted to try good quality food wherever they can get it.
“Paris might sound like a more obvious location and it is the centre of commerce in France, but actually the centre of food in France is located primarily down the West coast of France. Traditionally, that’s where a lot of food is imported from – particularly seafood – so we’re finding that we have more leeway to list stuff locally on the West Coast that we wouldn’t have if we were going for a national listing through the Paris route.”
There was no major difficulty, he says, in getting the office established in France. Most of the logistical details on the ground were taken care of by Office Manager Susan Young, whose familiarity with the French language and French business helped steer the company through all the necessary paperwork.
The La Rochelle base consists of two employees – one is Irish and has been working in France for over 15 years (Young), while the other is French food marketing graduate Alison, who acts as marketing assistant.
“They’re knocking on doors, presenting Irish food brands, getting them ready with translated packing and marketing materials for buyer presentations,” says Hyde, making it all sound so simple that you’d wonder why nobody has done it before.
Smaller brands fighting in unison for recognition and market share is very much a feature of the modern marketplace. Get used to seeing more and more French students coming to Ireland and being amazed to find that the Irish brands they love are in Ireland too.