Mark Ritson on branding: Norse fire smokes out bland brands

Four years ago Belinda Williams decided to combine her experiences as a caterer, entrepreneur and farmer's daughter to launch the Yorkshire Soup Company.

While most soup companies are content with globally sourced, frozen ingredients and mass production, the Yorkshire Soup Company uses only fresh British vegetables and herbs that are hand-cooked in their Melmerby kitchen. The company also uses an ancient brand tactic that appears to be back on the agenda.

On each of its translucent pots of soup, the company includes a photograph of one of its local suppliers. On its tomato soup, for example, you will find a photograph of Derek, a rather embarrassed-looking dairy farmer, who made the Wensleydale cheese that forms one of the soup's surprise ingredients.

Alternatively, on its carrot and celeriac pot, you will find Rachel, a grower at Jack Buck, the company that supplied the celeriac, standing in one of the fields in which the vegetables were grown.

It may not sound like much, but trust me, when you finally encounter one of these pots in a supermarket, the packaging will stop you in your tracks. In aisles full of banal logos, the proud smile of a local producer stands out a mile.

The origin of the term brand comes from brandr, the Norse word for fire.

It means to burn the mark of the producer onto the product that they made.

The bland brands that have dominated the supermarket shelves for the past century have gradually moved away from the original, authentic meaning of brand and toward a global, homogeneous, meaningless interpretation.

These brands were created by design agencies, tested by researchers and positioned by agencies to be aspirational. They are whatever you want them to be. Just don't ask how or where they were made, or by whom.

Take Northern Foods as an example. If it copied the packaging style of the Yorkshire Soup Company, its pies would show anonymous shift workers wearing headphones on a production line.

Northern Foods creates bland, soulless food using brand names such as Dalepak, San Marco and Pork Farms. There is no seasonality, no provenance, no passion in a Dalepak burger. San Marco pizza may sound Italian, but it is actually manufactured in an Irish factory. Pork Farms is located on an industrial estate outside Nottingham.

No surprise, then, that Northern Foods contested the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association's attempt to secure geographical indication (GI) status for its pork pies.

If approved, GI status would mean that a Melton Mowbray pie could only be made from fresh, chopped pork with no MSG, and baked in the traditional manner no more than 60 miles from the town of Melton in Leicestershire.

Northern Foods objected to the award of GI status partly because of self-interest (it had manufactured 25% of the UK's Melton Mowbray pies), but mostly because it doesn't seem to understand real branding. Fortunately, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the courts do, and its objections were rejected late last year.

Northern Foods company secretary Carol Williams claimed the decision was a 'sad day for common sense' and asked where it would all end. 'Will you only be allowed to buy Eccles cakes produced in Eccles or Chelsea buns made in the heart of Chelsea?' she wondered.

Yes, Ms Williams, hopefully one day you will. Eighteen more British applications for GI protection are being considered and branding in 2006 is starting to take on a decidedly Norse feel once again.

Brand heritage is returning to the fore. For firms such as the Yorkshire Soup Company, things are warming up nicely. For the likes of Northern Foods, it is time to get used to the taste of humble pie.

30 SECONDS ON ... GI STATUS

- The EU Protected Graphical Indication System came into force in 1993.

- There are currently 720 foods protected by the GI system; 300 more are under consideration.

- Protected brands include 160 meat and meat-based products, 80 types of olive oil, 150 cheeses and 150 fresh or processed fruits or vegetables.

- In the UK, 20 brands are GI-protected. These include Newcastle Brown Ale, Dorset Blue cheese, Worcestershire cider, Welsh lamb, Scotch beef, Whitstable oysters and Gloucestershire cider.

- In Ireland, Clare Island Salmon is protected.

- Foods in the UK that do not have GI protection include Cheddar cheese, Cumberland sausages and Cornish pasties.

- Fifteen of the 25 EU member states have GI-registered products. The EU has supported the policy with promotions to improve public awareness of regional food and drink.

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