The business of brands
Fred A’Court tracks how the history of meat brands has changed since the late 18th century, and how they have been represented via the pages of MTJ
The history and development of meat brands and the marketing of meat products can be traced through the pages of the Meat Trades Journal from its foundation in 1888. The Journal was established just as the international trade in meat and livestock was really taking off. Early branding was as much associated with the manufacturer’s name as with the attributes of the actual product.
A few well-known meat brands, such as Wall’s and Bowyers, had been founded as far back as the late 18th or very early 19th centuries. However, it was the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 that opened up free trade.
The first international trade in livestock and carcases quickly followed the introduction of steamboats and improvements in refrigeration techniques. The opening of the Union Stock Yards and centralised meat processing and packing operations in Chicago in 1865 also saw the establishment of the first international trading companies.
Smithfield Market created
In Britain, Smithfield Market was built on the site of a former horse and cattle trading livestock market in 1868. It quickly started to receive deliveries of international meat for onward distribution around the UK by rail.
The first shipment of New Zealand canned meat had arrived in Britain in 1870, the first New Zealand frozen lamb carcases in 1882, and frozen Argentine mutton from the newly established River Plate Company just a year later.
Virtually all the early branding for meat was for imported beef, lamb, mutton and pork from the US, Argentina and New Zealand through wholesale importers including Towers and Swift. An advertiser in early editions of the Journal was a South American company, Compania Sansinena De Carnes Congeladas, whose head office was in Long Lane, West Smithfield, London with six branch offices in major English and Welsh cities, as well as on the Continent. It promoted River Plate Mutton.
Argentine and Uruguayan meat companies were founded in the middle of the 19th century and their meat was heavily promoted in the third quarter of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. This also led to a number of iconic brands – Fray Bentos, Oxo and Liebig Meat Extract. In 1840, a concentrated beef extract to provide a cheap and nutritious meat substitute was initially sold as a tonic.
The Liebig Extract of Meat Company (Lemco) was established in 1865 and full-scale production commenced at an industrial plant at Villa Independencia in Uruguay, The town was later renamed Fray Bentos. The meat extract became so popular in Europe that, soon, the factory was exporting almost all its production. By 1875, 500 tonnes of the extract were being produced at the Fray Bentos plant each year.
A cheaper version of Liebig extract was introduced under the name Oxo in 1899. The product enjoyed an immense rise in popularity, becoming a staple in middle-class European households. Oxo was a favourite drink for soldiers during both World Wars.
In 1873, Liebig began producing tinned corned beef sold under the Fray Bentos label. Fray Bentos ranked among the largest industrial complexes in South America, playing a major role in the development of Uruguay’s cattle sector, employing 5,000 in its heyday and processing an animal every five minutes. In 1899 freezer units were installed, enabling the company to export its products.
The Vestey Group acquired the company in 1924 and the business was renamed Anglo Meatpacking. Fray Bentos eventually diversified into soups, meatballs and tinned fruit, and then into pies and puddings, notably canned meat pies, including steak and kidney and minced beef and onion. The company has been owned by several groups and, two years ago, was acquired by Baxters Food Group from Princes.
At the time of the acquisition, Baxters chairman Audrey Baxter said: “Like Baxters, Fray Bentos is a heritage brand and is known the length and breadth of the country, holding a special place in the hearts of British consumers, both young and old. We have many exciting ideas to revitalise the brand as we aim to secure a strong foothold in the canned meat market.”
Baxter added that Fray Bentos would provide “an array of opportunities” to develop the company’s position in the UK market and internationally. The company says it currently has the largest market share in the ambient canned pies and puddings category, and 63% of UK adults have tried Fray Bentos.
The final years of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century saw meat imports not only from South America but also Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, through meat wholesalers, some of which are still familiar today, notably Towers (now Towers Thompson) and Swift (now Weddel Swift). W Weddel & Co imported frozen mutton and beef from New Zealand, Australia and South America to European markets.
Swift & Co revolutionised the north American meat trade by creating refrigerated rail cars to carry frozen beef and pork from the mid-West to cities on the eastern seaboard. Weddel and Swift merged in 1987 and are now part of Randall Parker. Other well-known importers and distributors included Armours and Borthwicks.
While imported meats from around the world largely accounted for half of all advertised and marketed brands in the early 20th century, sausages and their ingredients made up the other half.
Sausages, it seems, were as popular 100 years ago as they are now. In terms of longevity, Wall’s must be one of, if not the oldest, meat brand still in commercial use.
In 1786, Richard Wall opened a butcher’s stall in London, gaining a reputation as a fine pork butcher. In 1812, Wall received the first Royal Appointment to George, Prince of Wales, as ‘Purveyor of Pork,’ a role he kept when the Prince became George IV. A series of further Royal Appointments up the reign of George V followed.
The business passed through three generations of the Wall family and then a series of companies. Mattessons was merged with the meat side of Wall’s to form Mattessons Wall’s. Richard Mattes, a German pork butcher, founded Mattessons in 1947. It is credited with introducing the first pâté into the UK in 1971.
Another early iconic meat brand was Bowyers, particularly associated with sausages. In 1805, Abraham Bowyer set up a grocer’s shop in Trowbridge. The business merged with Wiltshire Bacon in Chippenham and Calne & Harris in Calne. Like other long-established brands it passed through a number of companies. Today the Kerry Group owns Wall’s, Mattessons and Richmond. In 2001 the group also bought the Bowyers and Palethorpes pork sausage business and brands.
Although not as well known today, because the name is not in commercial use, Palethorpes’ place in brand history is assured. Palethorpes was pork butchers that made sausages and pork pies. Henry Palethorpe established a butcher’s business in Birmingham in 1852.
US flooding UK with cheap meat
Realising that the US was flooding the UK with cheap bacon and pork, Palethorpe moved into value-added meat processing, specialising in sausages. Business expanded rapidly and a large retail shop with extensive outbuildings at the rear, was purchased in 1873, in the centre of Dudley.
In 1890, the site of a former brewery in Tipton was bought, with production transferred to there from Dudley. It was claimed the company became the largest producer of sausages in the world. It expanded during World War One, supplying canned meat products to the British Army and continued in production through to the second half of the 20th century.
A wide range of marketing material was produced to advertise the brand. Staffordshire butcher Allan Bennett says Palethorpes had its own train wagons with the logo on the sides. A popular form of branding was on enamel wall signs, with some today being collector’s items fetching thousands of pounds. Auctioneer Richard Edmonds of Chippenham Auctions says they are popular items to decorate kitchens.
Fellow Midlands butcher Keith Boxley used to work at the Tipton factory, like his father before him. “We always argued that Palethorpes fuelled troops in the war and helped them win,” Boxley reveals. “I was born in a Palethorpes house. They owned two or three streets near the factory. We overlooked the factory and, like a lot of industries, they had houses for the workers. My father had a reserved occupation: he tried to join up, but Palethorpes withdrew him and paid him to work for them during the war.”
Although Kerry Group owns the Palethorpes pork sausage brand, Pork Farms Palethorpes continues to produce savoury products at its Market Drayton site. Pork Farms was bought by Vision Capital in 2007.
Before the advent of professional ingredients suppliers, butchers used to mix their own ingredients. Competition to sell ingredients, such as sausage binders, spices and curing salts, was fierce, so strong branding was important. Provost Crisks, Crampon, Barker, Sapitaw, PAB, Superusks, Saupolon, Peter Piper Pepper, and Brandram’s ‘BB’ Bengal Saltpetre were among the most prominent brands.
The Second World War changed everything, of course, with rationing severely restricting trade. The weekly ration of basic foodstuffs for an adult in 1943 was: 1lb (450g) meat, 4oz (100g) bacon and ham, 3oz (75g) cheese, 1 egg, 2oz (50g) cooking fat, 2oz (50g) butter, 8oz (225g) sugar, 2oz (50g) tea.
Recovery after the War was slow, with branding gradually becoming more sophisticated with the emergence of larger companies, supermarkets and other promotion avenues, notably television.
The Meat & Livestock Commission (MLC) came into being in 1968 and the Meat Promotion Council in the mid-1970s. These marketing and promotion bodies had to tackle branding at a time of great change in lifestyles that saw the demise of the family Sunday lunch, the rise of ‘one-stop’ supermarket shopping, the development of so-called convenience ready meals, and snacking.
Brand themes abounded to promote ‘Britishness’, quality, value, health, welfare and, latterly, organic and sustainability. The use of phrases from the 1990s such as ‘traditional’ and ‘heritage’ became more controversial as some started to challenge what they actually meant. The break-up of the MLC and emergence of species and country marketing boards added another dimension to branding.
Monitoring buzz words
Bpex’s Keith Fisher kept a close eye on branding through his work with the MLC, monitoring the use of the word ‘British’ and use of quality logos produced at the time. He says that some marketeers became focused on putting as much information on packs as they possibly could, leading to the risk of information overload.
In recent times, clear nutrition information on packs through the use of so-called ‘traffic lights’ – with red indicating high, amber medium and green low amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt – has generated a host of different styles and presentations of the information.
Branding has come a long way in the last 125 years. Developments in marketing technology will undoubtedly determine the direction branding takes over the next 125.
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