Interview: James Hallett, chairman, british asparagus campaign 2008

Over the past six years there has been a phenomenal increase in sales of British asparagus. In 2001, only 2.7 per cent of the population bought or tasted British asparagus during the course of the asparagus season. By last year this figure was up to 14.3 per cent. In large part this rise has been due to the success of the annual British Asparagus Campaign.

The campaign was devised by M&W Mack commercial director James Hallett, who this year becomes its chairman. His knowledge of marketing has helped it to have a major impact on the British shopper. "Asparagus is a fantastic product, but it had very little promotion. We've been successful because we understand the shopping patterns and know how to drive sales," he says.

Hallett was brought up in Hertfordshire, without any particular agricultural background. Despite this, he chose to study agriculture at Wye College. "I wanted to be involved in food and particularly in production," he explains.

After leaving college he worked first for Geest and then for Flamingo: in both cases he worked in sales. He admits: "I haven't had a particularly varied career."

In 1998 he made a strategic career move. Realising that he needed a deeper understanding of marketing, he joined Italian sauce company Sacla. "I realised that I had a great deal to learn. I wanted to have wider experience of sales and to develop my skills."

Like most top brands, Sacla had strong marketing strategies. Hallett learned a lot; the biggest lesson being the importance of the customer's needs. "You have to know who your consumers are, what they need and why they should want your product," he says.

When he moved to M&W Mack, he put his experience to good use. The firm packs and distributes vegetables, and in his first year at the company he realised there was great scope for increasing sales of asparagus. He got together with another packhouse, Bomfords, to set up a marketing initiative. Each firm put in £5,000 and the British Asparagus Campaign was born. Six years later, there are around nine firms contributing £40,000 a year to the campaign. "It's a unique campaign. We're all competitors, but we work together to highlight the product. The season is celebrated and we have a strong awareness of consumer media."

British asparagus has been used by most of the top TV chefs. The campaign also got a boost when asparagus was prominently featured in Jamie Oliver's television adverts for Sainsbury's.

The improvement in sales has been impressive. In 2006, sales of British asparagus were worth £13.9m. In 2007 sales rose by 19.3 per cent to £17.2m. And the British asparagus industry has had to increase output to match this. "We've seen huge growth. During the British season,which lasts from April to June, we've been able to keep pace with demand. Occasionally we have to import from Peru, but this is very rare."

Luckily, asparagus was harvested before last year's flooding so growers were largely unaffected by the weather.

Every year a new chairman for the campaign is appointed, and this year it is Hallett's turn. "It's a very full job. During the season, we speak to the PR firm and to other producers on a daily basis."

He has to use all his marketing and media experience to get magazines to include recipes, health hints and food suggestions involving UK asparagus.

The 2008 campaign will be aimed at young men between 25 and 40 - a consumer sector it has not specifically targeted before now. "The 'Jamie Oliver effect' cannot be denied and this sector of the population is currently the fastest growing in terms of cooking at home."

The campaign will promote simple and effective recipes and of course there will be the annual British Asparagus Festival, which will be held in Evesham in May. Hallett belives demand will increase, although it may take a while for British growers to catch up.

"Growing asparagus is a slow process; the crop is in the ground for 10 years. (The campaign's) goal is to see greater sales as we introduce more consumers to the product."

CV
1992: Graduates from Wye College with BSc in Agriculture
1992-1994: Works for Geest in the produce marketing and vegetable
trading division
1994-1998: Trading controller/sales manager, Flamingo
1998-2001: UK sales director, Sacla
2001 to present: Commercial director, M&W Mack
2008: Chairman, British Asparagus Campaign


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