Making friends in Britain to build better business

Article written by Food NI CEO Michele Shirlow for Farm Week.

Top marketers recommend ‘Influencer Marketing’ as vital, in other words focusing on the key individuals who can best spread your message. One of Food NI’s goals in 2016 is acting as a host to leading food and drink writers who are keen to see and experience what Northern Ireland producers, especially artisan enterprises, are developing. In this role we’ve briefed many of the top writers from Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland about our food and drink producers and our superb restamicheleurants.

Food NI is building connections with these key influencers in neighbouring markets because they offer huge business opportunities. Great Britain, for instance, imports around £40 billion worth of food and drink annually. Winning even a small slice of this business would provide enormous benefits for our companies. Building strong relationships with key influencers is a major element in our drive to help companies to grow sales. A coherent and consistent approach to this is the best way to support growing companies and we work very closely on this with Tourism NI.

Last week we hosted three key influencers, Pete Brown – a native of Somerset and leading cider expert who visited County Armagh, Charlie Turnbull, a cheese aficionado who sells artisan cheeses from his shop in Devon and advises P& O on food to serve on top cruise ships – he spoke in Derry, and Valentine Warner, TV chef and a key influencer on the London food scene. He was at Belfast’s Focus on Food. All left with a positive impression of our food and drink offering here, each wanting to return and each leaving behind some wise guidance for the small producers they met. All were unanimous in their view that our food landscape here is surprisingly different from the food scene in Great Britain.

We also have especially close relationships with prominent food journalists such as MasterChef judge Charles Campion, Xanthe Clay of the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian’s Fiona Beckett. Another recent visitor and friend to Northern Ireland, Lucas Hollweg, produced a five-page special in the prestigious Delicious magazine, one of the most important UK magazines for foodies. Hollweg’s excellent piece – The Northern Ireland You Need to Know – will certainly have encouraged the magazine’s readers to look for our food in their stores and to consider travelling here to experience the best of what our producers have to offer.

Pete Brown, one of the leading experts on cider and craft beers, certainly knows his cider and where to find the best apples. We introduced him to many of our leading cider producers in Armagh at the Heartland Food Forum. Pete wrote and an important magazine feature in Britain – How Northern Ireland is becoming a player in the cider market.

Pete found that our cider tends to be different from Britain in that producers here use 100 per cent pure apple juice, much of it from tart Bramleys – without concentrates, “something few commercial-scale English cider makers will do”. He added that Northern Irish ciders are “a mix of eaters, cookers and cider apples and, as such, they’re a little more open and appley than cider from the west of England, with a tart, refreshing sharpness”. His conclusion, great for Northern Ireland, is that there is a “new kid on the cider block. Check it out, and share in the optimism and momentum that’s about to redefine our perception of Northern Ireland”.

So, observations of Northern Ireland are changing throughout Britain – driven by an ever-growing band of supporters and influencers. Much has already been achieved.

The challenge, of course, is to ensure that readers – and other consumers – find it as easy as possible to buy our food and drink. We need to intensify and co-ordinate efforts to present and promote our products, especially those from artisans and smaller producers, in Britain as well as the Republic.

We’ve a great deal more to do but we are using Year of Food and Drink as a magnet to attract many more visitors to help us build momentum throughout 2016 and beyond. We’ll be focusing on developing new contacts and on consolidating our relationships with existing influencers in helping to position Northern Ireland as an ideal tourism destination and as a source of innovative and outstandingly tasty food and drink