Matt Scott knew he faced a battle to make flour sexy when he bought Bacheldre Watermill seven years ago. After all, producing organic and traditional flours from a 16th century Welsh water-powered mill in Powys was, literally, miles away from his former life as a postman in Gosport.
Yet he and his wife, Anne, are delivering a hugely successful business, selling flour to bread-makers around the world. Turnover from the watermill, located on the border with Shropshire, has doubled annually since 2001 and should top £500,000 this year.
Fundamental to this success is, of course, the quality of the flour, made using conventional production methods and organically-grown grain. Local wheat is also cultivated on the Bacheldre Farm and used as it would have been hundreds of years ago.
The range of 100% wholemeal, malted blend, rye and spelt flour was extended in January, when Scott collaborated with The Organic Smokehouse in Shropshire. Malted wheat flakes are cold-smoked over oak chippings in the smokehouse, then mixed with the mill’s Organic Stoneground Malted Blend Flour. Scott says the process infuses a wood-smoked aroma and taste, reminiscent of bread being baked in a wood-fired oven.
An ability to create such exciting imagery around his products is helping Scott punch above his weight against the big millers, whose production systems are highly automated. It is just one part of a considered marketing strategy, which Scott believes is as crucial to any small business as having quality and innovative products.
While Bacheldre still supplies craft bakers directly with speciality flours, 85% of its flour is now sold branded to consumers through retail. In its simplest form, marketing is about ensuring your business meets your customers’ needs and wants and making sure they can buy your products or services in the right place at the right time. It is also about shouting loudly about what you do.
The Scotts took over Bacheldre Watermill when it was nothing more than a working museum, producing less than two tonnes of flour a month to sell to a local shop and brewery. "We were complete novices, so one of the first things we did was visit a grain merchant to find out what was the best grain in the country. To have a fighting chance, we needed to boast we used the best ingredients," he says.
He also realised it was vital the product looked good on the shelf and he instigated an important packaging change by switching to a traditional white bag with a Celtic print. "We had to show suppliers and bakers the mill had new owners and we were serious about making it work."
== Broader recognition ==
With quality ingredients and packaging, Bacheldre Watermill began to get noticed - not just within the world of flour and baking, but within the wider Welsh food industry. In 2003, the mill received a commendation from the Soil Association for its Stoneground Strong 100% wholemeal flour and scooped gold in the Welsh TrueTaste/GwirFlas Awards (organic). It repeated the feat a year later. "Entering awards is crucial to winning new business. It means when you visit retail buyers, they sit up and listen, because you have third-party endorsement," says Scott.
With the award certificates on his office wall, he arranged meetings with influential buyers from the Fresh & Wild organic retail chain and Harrods. He was never going to retire on the orders secured from the top people’s store in Knightsbridge, but the flour’s presence on its shelves raised interest among other retailers. This included top-end supermarket Waitrose, which now stocks the mill’s spelt flour in all its stores and its 100% wholemeal, malted blend and rye flour in more than 30 branches. "We cannot compete on price with the big millers, so with a well thought-out marketing strategy, aimed at the niche organic end of the market, we can price our flour accordingly and retain our margins," says Scott.
The marketing activity included making the most of the public relations opportunity presented by the deal with Harrods. It was a great story that a tiny mill in Wales was supplying the big stores in London. Whatever your product - and let’s face it, flour is not the sexiest - you must work out your point of difference and shout it from the rooftops," he says. "If you don’t have a PR company, look at the magazines you want to be in and email the journalists directly."
At the same time as talking to the press, Scott was busy finding new distributors by attending trade shows in the UK and Europe.
== Keeping the look fresh ==
As publicity and sales increased, Scott was determined not to rest on his laurels and he decided to repackage his flour again. He had ideas in his mind about what would work, such as children running through fields of corn, but he decided to ask the experts. He spent months talking to buyers about what would have an impact on their shelves. The original idea was considered too American and stockists suggested using images of the watermill instead.
"It sounds obvious when someone else points out what would work. All the photos were taken around the mill, in our dining room and the bread oven. Being able to show where the flour is made is so important when marketing organic products."
The repackaging generated even more awards - and more publicity. The flour won Best New Packaging Design at the Organic and Natural Product Industry Awards in 2005 and the mill was named Supreme Champion and Category Winner in the Waitrose Small Producers awards. Another gong in the most recent True Taste Awards included the prize of a year’s free PR support from a specialist firm, which would usually cost a small business thousands of pounds. Bacheldre is benefiting from the expertise of London-based Focus PR.
The rest of the mill’s marketing is undertaken by Scott himself, who estimates he spends about one day a week on promoting the business. Measuring the value of any marketing activity is tricky and companies must take a medium- to long-term view when analysing any return on investment and spend time researching which activity is right for them. "I cannot put a figure on how much money we spend on marketing; it is just such an integral part of the business. I just know we are growing and constantly attracting new buyers, so it must be working."
Effective marketing has also raised the mill’s profile internationally. It now sells flour to restaurants and bakers in Russia and Trinidad. And in March, it secured its first order from Greece. The marketing strategy for 2008 includes revamping the mill’s website, so that domestic and overseas customers can order online.
As the price of grain roc-kets, clever marketing will be crucial for Bacheldre Mill, so that its margins are protected. It is a challenge this former postman is relishing.
=== Making time for the media ===
Matt Scott aims high when seeking publicity for his business and he is no stranger to television. Celebrity chefs, including Jamie Oliver, have used his flour and specialist channel UKTV Food has filmed at the mill. The channel’s most recent visit was at the end of the year for its Market Kitchen programme.
Another TV crew visited in February to film footage for a news story about the rising cost of grain. "We don’t turn anything down. This is all about putting yourself forward and making time for the media, so more people notice you and your products," says Scott.
There have been occasions where expected television coverage has not materialised. The Channel Four series No Going Back, which follows the lives of families starting a new life, filmed the Scotts’ first few weeks at the mill. "But they dropped us in the end, probably because nothing went disastrously wrong or we didn’t end up getting divorced. Perhaps we were a bit more media-savvy than many of the people they interview."
=== The principles of DIY press releases ===
One of the easiest ways for small businesses to get media coverage is to write press releases giving journalists the latest news on what is happening.
This is not as scary as it might sound. The secret is to keep your announcement simple and interesting and ensure the information is sent to the right people at a local newspaper or trade magazine. What are you doing and where? When are you doing it and why? How are you doing it?
Write a snappy headline and try and sum everything up in a punchy first sentence which, ideally, should not be more than 25 words long.
Try and include a third-party quote from an existing customer or industry expert to endorse what you are saying. Make sure you include your contact details and you are available when the journalist calls.