It was only a few weeks ago that the future of Australia’s last remaining fruit and vegetable processor, SPC Ardmona, was in doubt.
A steady influx of cheap imported tomatoes, a consistently strong Australian dollar and confusing regulation surrounding country of origin claims have all impacted on the processor, which warned it may have to cease trading in Australia.
SPCA reached out for government assistance to meet rising costs, a request that was initially met with a $25m pledge from Labor, but was later rejected by the Abbott government.
The processor also appealed to the Anti-Dumping Commission to have tariffs imposed on tomatoes imported from Italy on the basis that the cheap imports were causing material injury to local producers. The Anti-Dumping Commissioner ruled in favour of SPCA, and imposed a tariff of around nine precent on 14 Italian processed tomato brands.
The imposition of tariffs and increased consumer awareness of SPCA’s plight led to a steady increase in sales, but not enough to secure its future.
It wasn’t until late one Thursday night in early February that SPCA’s future would really take a turn for the better.
Newcastle resident and loyal SPCA customer, Linda Drummond pioneered a movement on Twitter that encouraged Australians to purchase SPC products over the weekend. She created the hashtag #SPCSunday which soon spread to various forms of social media including Instagram and Facebook.
Within less than 24 hours, the hashtag had been used in over 1,000 tweets and reached the likes of Australian celebrities including Magda Szubanski, Father Bob and Adam Spencer who were all eager to support the cause.
By the time Sunday rolled around, the hashtag was tweeted over 7,000 times and sales of SPCA products soared..
Food magazine recently spoke with Bronwyn Powell, the marketing and innovation director for SPC Ardmona about the #SPCSunday campaign and the impact that it has had on the business.
Powell said that sales in the lead up to #SPCSunday were already increasing, but since the campaign, more consumers have been reached than they could have possibly hoped for.
“In our key line and our key retailers we have increased sales by over 50 percent, which was actually happening even before #SPCSunday. We have had such great support from consumers, retailers and everyday Aussies, and now even more so,” she said.
“We are just overwhelmed with the everyday Australian supporter for our company really. So it’s amazing, it’s really been fantastic.”
When asked whether SPCA would consider integrating #SPCSunday into the company’s marketing activities, Powell said it is something that the company would ‘definitely’ consider.
“We are definitely looking at how we can continue to support and grow this idea whether it is instore or online with consumers. It’s only early days but trust me, my team are crazily thinking, about how we can help grow and support #SPCSundays and really connect with our consumers and the community.”
Since #SPCSunday, both Coca-Cola Amatil (SPCA’s owner) and the Victorian state government announced a new $100 million investment plan to assist the processor over a three year period. The cash injection will no doubt provide much needed assistance to the brand, however for the company to continue to prosper now and into the future, ongoing consumer support is vital.
Food magazine asked Powell what she believed Australia would lose if SPC was to close.
“There are a lot of things that we are going lose if we lose SPC. The first one that I have to say as the marketing director is great brands that have been around for nearly 100 years – Many of them people have grown up with. Household names like Ardmona, IXL jam, Goulburn Valley and Taylors more recently which is a newer brand, those brands will be lost and lost from a lot of our Australian childhood memories.
“And because we are an agricultural based company with Australian grown fruit and vegetables – we are going to actually lose a lot of Australian growers. And the sad thing for me, the thing that probably brought me the most emotion in this job was that we would be losing 100 year old pear trees that have gone through three generations of families.
“The other thing is that consumers are going to lose the reassurance that they are buying Australian, and when they are buying Aussie grown, and our products, I can assure you that they are clean, green and wholesome. We give consumers comfort that their food is premium quality and safe – that is critically important and something that we know and we can demonstrate.”
Powell says that differing standards in food safety is another concern that the Australian public will face should SPC close and shelf space be replaced with imported products. The call for stronger country of origin labelling and more rigorous testing of imported fruit was heightened last year after high levels of lead were detected in Chinese canned peaches. Tests on the fruit showed alarming high levels of lead – up to twice the amount that is legally permissible under the Australian and New Zealand food standard.
“One of the things I always say is actually look at where products come from… Have a look in the fine print and actually see where that product was really made and then ask yourself, do you really know what goes on in terms of the conditions that the product was made in? Do we really know if they have the same strict laws that we have in Australia around food safety?”
Powell explains that innovation within the Australian fruit sector is also something that the nation stands to lose.
“We would lose all of the future innovation that myself and my team have been working on. Just one of those is Goulburn Valley Perfect Fruit [soft serve fruit] which is currently in test market. We have loads of other ideas too that won’t be there if we go, as there is nobody else that really operates in fruit to offer that innovation in Australia. Fruit is at the core of what we do.”
Although SPCA has been enjoying a spate of increased support from consumers and retailers in recent months, ongoing sales is what’s required to to keep the company alive.
In mid February, parent company Coca-Cola Amatil posted a $400m slump in net profit, related to write-downs from SPCA. In order for the company to truly come back into prosperity, constant consumer support is paramount, and also achievable.
Spring Gully, a South Australian sauce and pickle manufacturer was in a similar predicament, albeit on a smaller scale, in mid-2013. The company entered voluntary administration with debts of $4.9 million in July, but showed stronger signs of life months later as a result of community and retail support.
Fellow South Australian food brand, Robern Menz launched the “Shop and Swap” campaign which encouraged consumers to swap one supermarket food item with its South Australian produced counterpart.
Not long after Shop and Swap was launched, three weeks' worth of Spring Gully sales took place over a three day period with Foodland, IGA and Coles placing extra orders to make up for the increase in sales. In November, the company announced that it had cleared $1 million in debt.
The question is can SPCA follow a similar path and pave a road to recovery through increased consumer support? Powell thinks that they are most certainly on the right track.
“The support is certainly helping us, it is certainly saying to everyone that this is a company with brands and products that Australians want to keep alive.
“SPC is overwhelmed with the support, and we want to thank each and every Australian who has supported us – retailers and the consumers.”