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By Lisa Carter, Media Consultant

Jamie Oliver. The mere mention of his name conjured up thoughts of sustainable farming, healthy school tuckshops, honourable programs to help disadvantaged youngsters, and of course, fresh, simple home-cooked food.

So who better to spearhead an Australian supermarket campaign focusing on “bringing better, healthier, affordable fresh food to life for everyday Australians, giving them the information and confidence to prepare great tasting fresh meals at home”?  Right?

Woolworths, the ‘fresh food people’, announced it had signed on the celebrity chef last year, just months after the end of his highly successful 11-year partnership with British supermarket Sainsbury’s (credited with turning the chain’s fortunes on its head).

Something as simple as a nutmeg recommendation in your spag bol from the food crusader (as part of its ‘Try Something Different’ campaign), translated to a whopping nine tonnes of the spice walking off the supermarket’s shelves - the equivalent of the previous two years’ sales. Chief executive Justin King called it one of the most successful and mutually rewarding partnerships ever.

So as you can imagine, at the time of the Woolworths announcement, public sentiment, (particularly among fellow public relations gurus), was rather positive.

  • “This is the first really significant move they have made towards proving, and aligning around this central thought. This is big, big news. A supermarket dedicated to tackling Australia’s number one health issue – by getting people to eat fresh food – is massive.”
  • “As a shareholder with a vested interest in WOW, this is a great decision and will hopefully see them shift from price based competition back to what they did best; fresh. This also seems to signify a refocus onto local, natural and a more ‘middle class’ marketing scheme. Hopefully Jamie (and his ideas) are used in a way that shapes the brand in the right way.”
  • “The first thing I thought when I read the announcement was, what? How could he align with a brand that still sells cage eggs in their store, and for all purposes supports battery hens? Less than a minute into the video and I see that’s the first thing they are going to be tackling. Well done Jamie, and go Woolies.”

But his hard-earned, honourable reputation ended up on the line, in a distinct lesson in how quickly a campaign can go pear-shaped. And it also clearly showed that spend does not necessarily equal return.

So how and where did it all go wrong? A 40-cent levy per crate, for six weeks, on vegetable growers, to fund the ‘Jamie’s Garden’ advertisements, which came on top of the 2.5 – 5 percent fee growers are required to pay the supermarket for marketing and promoting their produce.

It all came to light when independent Federal Senator Nick Xenophon and AusVeg Acting Chief Executive William Churchill held a press conference, right on the doorstep of a Woolies supermarket. (Read: public relations nightmare in the making).

The fact that Jamie Oliver was worth an estimated $261.5 million last year, and Woolworths posted a profit of $1.32 billion for the first half of the financial year, an outraged Australian public took to twitter in droves to express their disgust at growers picking up the advertising tab (particularly since this equated to 40 per cent of their approximate $1-a-crate profit).

The supermarket’s response was the point at which things started to get messy. Woolworths insisted the levy was merely ‘voluntary’, but to no avail – consumer comments overwhelmingly echoed those of AusVeg - that the move amounted to bullying of small growers worried about losing orders from such dominant retailers.

Former Nationals Senator Bill O’Chee wrote that the ACCC had confirmed the company is the subject of a long-running investigation into the way it treats suppliers, so reports that growers are petrified of speaking up against the levy for fear of retaliation did absolutely nothing the help Woolworths win the PR game.

The whole saga played right in to one of Woolworths’ biggest PR challenges – that (rightly or wrongly) people believe it’s involved in anti-competitive practices.

And Oliver’s representatives’ initial comments that he was merely an “employee” and therefore, unable to do much about the levy were picked up by the media and dished up on televisions, newspapers, radio and websites across the country. Even though he quickly followed that up by committing to discuss the issue with Woolworths, it was all a bit late to stop the big, dirty stain he unwittingly acquired.

The responses from both Oliver and Woolworths failed, dismally, to quell the public’s anger. Instead of consumers talking about fresh produce, they were talking about taking their money elsewhere. Those all-important key messages of inspiring a healthier Australia all but disappeared in a sea of debate over the power and might of large companies over the little people.

I guess it’s one meal the public just couldn’t stomach.

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