Something to Shout About

Consumer-facing caterers such as McDonald’s and Starbucks love to tell the world about how they’re saving the planet. Their contract counterparts, on the other and, often remain guarded and fearful of publicity. But are contract caterers right not to shout about their sustainability efforts? Joe Fernandez reports.

Consumer-facing caterers such as McDonald’s and Starbucks love to tell the world  about how they’re saving the planet. Their contract counterparts, on the other and, often remain guarded and fearful of publicity.  But are contract caterers right not to shout about their sustainability efforts? Joe Fernandez reports.


The Golden Arches is one of the defining emblems of the global food industry yet ask the man on the street what Compass Group’s logo looks like and you’ll probably be met with a blank expression. In employee and revenue terms, Compass and McDonald’s are broadly comparable in size yet in the way they leverage their brand to talk about sustainability initiatives the two are poles apart. ]


McDonald’s recently ran a series of TV adverts in the UK promoting its A-Z of corporate responsibility efforts. The closest you’re likely to get to unpicking Compass’ progress on sustainability is downloading its annual report. Contract caterers rarely have their brand as consumer facing, which means they haven’t necessarily had to be as proactive in talking up their environmental achievements.


Yet with consumers increasingly demanding transparency from all businesses, pressure to be seen to be engaging with issues of sustainability will increasingly be exerted further down the supply chain. “The catering industry firms do not have to address the consumer and media pressures so forthrightly, but many of the targets are applicable to them and their customers can place just as much emphasis on ethical and sustainable standards as the consumer,” points out Steve Kelsey, strategic innovations director at branding and design consultancy pi global.


So just how big are the differences between these hidden professional brands and the more consumer-focused giants whose identity can be instantly recalled by their logos – or even their jingles – alone? And are contract caterers missing a trick in keeping such achievements tucked away in stakeholder reports?  Part of the reason for the ‘hidden’ label that surrounds firms in the catering industry is the professional nature of the sector. Cost remains a key driver of contract negotiations and while many customers care deeply about ethics and the environment, budgetary constraints mean others can’t afford to pay a premium for a more ‘sustainable’ service.


“Where the client is saying actually I need you to cut your costs, I need you to change your menus, I need you to take some of the nicer things out and make it more basic, then there’s a limit to how far we can go,” says Sodexo chief executive Aidan Connolly. “I can’t impose [sustainability] on my client.” Of course, the level of public awareness of sustainability initiatives is hardly a reliable gauge of genuine progress.


The likes of Sodexo and Compass have made impressive strides in areas such as carbon reduction, waste management and responsible sourcing, with whole sections of annual reports dedicated to corporate social responsibility in the same way as their consumer counterparts. But neither chooses to publicise its efforts to consumers.


Whilst Coca-Cola may be taking full page ads promoting new ‘Plant Bottles’ and McDonald’s may be emphasising the freshness of its ecofriendly ingredients and packaging ahead of London 2012, catering firms do most of their work in the background, content to let consumer brands steal the limelight.Connolly, however, says he does not feel the need to shout about it to a wider audience because he’s not seeking approbation from the marketplace.   “It’s difficult for me to justify diverting effort into shouting about stuff because the audience I’m shouting to is actually quite concentrated and I can reach them better with our Better Tomorrow Plan, with good PR and with small functions.”


Where consumer facing companies have the burden of having to respond to a series of issues around sustainability, waste management, and corporate responsibility because they are heavily in the public eye, caterers can be much more discrete with how they address these issues.


Melanie Edghill, marketing director at Catermasters, says overt branding at point of sale is difficult for firms like hers because clients dictate what they want and how they will present it. Rather than shouting about your own company’s achievements, Edghill suggests the focus should be on making sure you can meet the demands of your customers so they in turn can be seen to be fulfilling their responsibilities. “You need to identify a brand ethos and really communicate that every time you speak to a potential customer. Clients are always benchmarking you against certain demands and it’s up to you to prove that you can help them with dilemmas such as being green or Fairtrade or having systems in place to divert waste from landfills.”


Philip Davies president of EMEA at branding specialists Siegel+Gale, agrees but adds that opportunities still exist to use the consumer facing brand and experience in order to promote, even subtly, the contract catering group brand behind it; for example in the way that Unilever has used its group brand to accentuate product brands like Persil or Cif or Comfort. Sceptics, however, argue that keeping green claims confined to corporate reports helps catering brands err on the side of caution in light of increasing scrutiny from the public and NGOs.


Many sustainability efforts of late have been criticised as ‘greenwashing’ and branding experts warn that the wrong statements have the potential to bite hard when consumers are so keenly focused on ethical values. A former senior marketer at Premier Foods Foodservice suggests that the contract catering industry has already been stung by negative publicity from shows such as Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution which, rather than make white label firms talk more openly about their sourcing policies and green commitments, has instead seen them retreat further into their shells.


“It’s easier for us than others because of the Premier Group name, but the industry has become side-tracked by recent documentaries like Jamie Oliver’s. Nowadays clients expect sustainable offerings, but they also want reasonable costs and it can be a struggle to make the two go hand-in-hand. This is why I think many firms remain hidden on their eco credentials and various green efforts.” Part of Premier’s manoeuvring to accommodate the changing industry was opening up its 700-strong product line to offer branded, own-label and bespoke products “to suit every caterer with a bunch of promises related to the environment and sourcing methods”.


Unilever has done similar work and private firms like Cucina, have vowed to “concentrate on the people and the food and let the profits take care of themselves.” Such efforts could help to boost the profiles of these predominantly hidden brands that at least in terms of marketing and publicising their sustainability efforts are way behind their consumer-facing counterparts. Whilst it may be naive to expect contract caterers to seek the exposure of a McDonald’s or a Starbucks, by sticking their heads a little higher above the parapet they can become more aligned to increasingly tough consumer expectations of sustainability.