The Black Farmer: Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones
Emmanuel-Jones on celebrity chefs, shaking up the farming industry, brand building and race in business
For all its success, The Black Farmer is still very much a ‘discovery’ brand. Essentially, not as many people have discovered it as its founder would like. But once they do, it tends to be love at first taste. Eager to push the boundaries, the man behind the brand and the black farmer himself, Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, is now working with ad giant McCann Erikson to heighten awareness.
A bold campaign will acquaint the nation with the brand that dares to be different, driving people to investigate The Black Farmer themselves. And after successfully getting his range of sausages stocked by all major supermarkets, former marketer and Conservative candidate Emmanuel-Jones is planning his second assault to seriously ramp up this presence.
Despite growing up in Small Heath in Birmingham, Emmanuel-Jones feels that farming has always been in his blood. His parents moved to the UK from Jamaica when he was four, originating from Clarendon, Frankfield, a part of the island known for subsistence farming. As one of nine brothers and sisters, he sought solace from the crowded two-up, two-down house they shared in Small Heath, at the time considered to be one of the poorest areas in Europe, at his father’s allotment.
“It was my responsibility as the oldest boy to look after this allotment, and it really became an oasis for me,” he recalls. “I can remember making a promise to myself at the age of 11 that one day I’d own my own farm, and everything I subsequently did in my life was trying to get into a position to do that.”
Forty years later, he achieved it, although getting there was by no means easy. He soon found that he was not accustomed to academic, or subsequently corporate life. Like many entrepreneurs, Emmanuel-Jones is dyslexic, which caused him relentless frustration. “I went to one of those failing schools where the kids and the teachers hated being there, and I was a pretty awful student; very disruptive,” he says. “My headmaster said I was the sort of guy that would probably end up in society’s dustbin.”
Emmanuel-Jones’ dyslexia meant he didn’t have a clue what was going on most of the time, and so left school without any qualifications and barely able to read and write. What these formative years confirmed was that he didn’t take well to being told what to do, a trait that has since proved invaluable to his entrepreneurial pursuits, but didn’t serve him too well in his next venture – the army.
“I joined the army with exactly the same sort of attitude that I had at school, and I got kicked out after about a year, because I was just a pain in the arse,” he says. “I was difficult, undisciplined, and the army life wasn’t for me as I’m the sort of person who needs to do my own thing rather than follow orders.”
Jetisoned by the armed forces, Emmanuel-Jones took the only option left available in those days, if you were deemed “useless at everything else” – catering college. When cheffing didn’t prove to be as lucrative as he wanted, he set about bagging a job in TV, despite being a far cry from the usual Oxbridge media type. After various attempts to find a way in, including writing to every single producer in the Radio Times, he was given a break by an entrepreneurial guy called Jock Gallagher, who trusted his instincts that he was a good bet.
Once in, he swiftly rose through the ranks at the BBC. The industry needed a strong character, and Emmanuel-Jones is largely responsible for the celebrity chef craze. “I gave people like Gordon Ramsay and Antony Worrall Thompson their first break in television,” he says. “It was my job to break these guys. We knew that they were pretty tough, so they needed someone equally as tough to manage them.”
Although he enjoyed working in television, he knew that to earn the kind of money he needed to buy a farm, he would have to do something else. Going it alone was the only real option. “I was lucky when I was working at the BBC because I had bosses that really just left me to get on with it,” he says. “I knew trying to get a job in a corporate structure wouldn’t work, I’d end up getting sacked after a couple of weeks because I’m just too individual.”
Spreading the word
Emmanuel-Jones’ techniques have always been guerrilla – he had to use some bold tactics to get The Black Farmer listed in the first place, and he drew on the experience he gained from running his own marketing agency for food brands. He targeted entrepreneurial brands, such as Cobra Beer, Kettle Chips and Loyd Grossman sauces, and focused on taking them to market. However, although he sought out brands that wanted to shake up a category, he often felt his creative flair was constrained by his clients’ fears. “One of the great frustrations of being an agency is working to the limitations of your clients’ courage,” he says. “All too often, some of the best creative ideas need someone to be courageous enough to go with them, and because of the consequences of shareholders and bosses, people tend to go for a safer option.”
He always knew that if he launched his own brand, he’d do what was right for it, and he’s now relishing the freedom to be as daring as he likes with The Black Farmer. His bravado was soon revealed after launching four years ago. Struggling to get listed in any supermarkets, yet convinced he had something they wanted, he took to the streets and did samplings of his sausages, asking consumers to go to his website and sign a petition, imploring the supermarkets to list the brand, if they liked his products – they invariably did. And the petition is still going. Despite being stocked by all the major supermarkets, Emmanuel-Jones is looking for a greater presence in all of them.
Launching a brand is expensive and risky, particularly when you’re stumping up the cash yourself. But no one ever made it without taking a gamble or two. “All you have to do is manage that fear,” says Emmanuel-Jones. “When I started I was haemorrhaging money, I spent £350,000 without one sale.”
But self-financing was essential due to a shortage of options. “It’s very difficult to get funding in the food business,” he says. “Funders are scared of food brands because of the horror stories of businesses going under when the supermarkets stop taking their products.”
Having bought his own farm on the Devon/Cornwall border 10 years ago, he had already noticed the farming community was in crisis. The root of this, he feels, stems from the fact that farmers have lost their relationship with the consumer – and it’s something he’s keen to rekindle. He also wants to drag the image of farming kicking and screaming into the 21st century. “The supermarkets really had become the gatekeepers to the consumer; the farming communities seemed to be irrelevant,” he says. “And the way the farming community was marketing itself to the general public was old-fashioned, out of date and irrelevant.”
Emmanuel-Jones wanted his brand to give farming a modern image, and connect with urban Britain. “I’ve always been of the belief that our plight in rural Britain will never be understood until we really get the urban communities on board,” he says.
By launching a brand, rather than supplying own-brand for supermarkets, he was able to foster the direct relationship with customers he was after. It’s this kind of relationship that will make a supermarket buyer think twice about de-listing you. While his own farm rears Ruby Red cattle and sells the meat to the famous local butcher, Warrens, all production for The Black Farmer range is outsourced. “I saw that [other fresh food brands] struggled because they tried to do everything themselves, from production to distribution to sales and marketing. I decided to work with manufacturers who could produce stuff to my spec,” he explains, leaving him free to focus on what he does best – sales and marketing.
“All my neighbours used to refer to me as the black farmer, so I thought that’s a brilliant brand name, no one else could nick the idea and it had a sort of maverick edge to it,” he says. “I wanted to follow Richard Branson’s Virgin model. When he launched Virgin, using that word in public was very risqué. You just didn’t say it. The Black Farmer comes from that school of thinking.”
He has never shied away from dealing with racial issues either, and he thinks it’s a subject that needs talking about rather than brushing under the carpet. In fact, when he shares his own ideas for his forthcoming ad campaign, you suspect McCann will try to rein him in.
He believes that race is still highly relevant in business, and feels that ethnic minorities are often sidelined by the inherently nepotistic nature of the beast. “We need to find mechanisms so ethnic minorities are not at such a big disadvantage,” he says. “They just don’t know the people that have the connections that open up the opportunities.”
Although the food industry has had to contend with price rises, Emmanuel-Jones feels his brand values and mainstream positioning are perfect for weathering the current economic storm. “I’m so glad we never positioned ourselves as a super gourmet brand,” he says, “because I think they’ll struggle.”
He also believes his brand values represent what consumers seek in times of uncertainty. “I saw a gap in the market,” he says. “Consumers were really looking for a personal connection – a real person. I also wanted to do food that was high quality, like a sausage that was 90% pork, made from only British meat, that could be eaten by people with a wheat intolerance, and that is an affordable premium.”
The past few years have seen the product range expand to include bacon, ham and chicken. He’s also looking at diversification through The Black Farmer Grill, which will see the brand establish itself in the food service sector, where he envisages outlets in line with those run by the West Cornish Pasty Company. “I think we’re at the stage where more food is eaten outside the home than inside,” he says, “and some of the standards of food outside is pretty appalling. So I think there’s a real opportunity for a quality product to establish itself in the food service market.”
Global expansion has also begun. The Black Farmer has recently launched in Ireland, and Emmanuel-Jones is planning a roll-out into other English-speaking countries. He’s looking to raise £2m to fund these plans, but won’t rush into it. “For many businesses, selling or bringing in outside investment has killed the soul of what their proposition was all about,” he says. “So it’s about getting the right investment.” And his track record suggests he’ll do just that.