Iceland MD Richard Walker: We had no idea Rang-tan film would be blocked from TV

Iceland boss and self-proclaimed environmentalist Richard Walker embodies the millennial MD - embracing "corporate purpose", with all its associated ups and downs. He talks that "banned" ad, mixing campaigning with business success, and making frozen food cool again.

Iceland MD Richard Walker: We had no idea Rang-tan film would be blocked from TV

Ask yourself which UK brand has transformed its image most extensively in the past year or so, there’s a good chance Iceland will be near the top of your list.

Once synonymous for many with frozen pizzas, party platters and former Atomic Kitten singer Kerry Katona, the retailer has morphed into something of an environmental champion.

The privately owned and family-run company stole a march on its supermarket rivals in January 2018 by announcing plans to go plastics-free on its own-label product packaging within five years, and more recently, also pledged to remove palm oil from its own products to help address the problem of deforestation in Indonesia.

Iceland’s real coup was when it repurposed a Greenpeace animated film (below) about palm-oil production for its Christmas ad campaign, which was famously rejected for broadcast by Clearcast because Greenpeace had not satisfied the body that it was not a political organisation – which Clearcast deemed would make the film, and therefore Iceland’s ad, political messaging.

It proved to be an ingenious PR move, with "Rang-tan" generating reams of publicity and placing Iceland at the heart of a national debate. The retailer’s reputation grew, too. During the week of the video’s launch, consideration of Iceland among consumers in the supermarket sector shot up 5.9 points to a score of 21.6 – the highest of any retailer on the YouGov BrandIndex.

The campaign also lifted Iceland’s "talkability" score, which increased 7.9 points to 15.5.

Stepping into the spotlight

It’s difficult to find a better example of a brand embracing "corporate purpose", and at its heart is Iceland’s fresh-faced MD Richard Walker – son of founder and chairman Malcolm. The 37-year-old Greenpeace member and surfing enthusiast has been the public face of Iceland’s environmental drive since taking up his role in August 2018, growing his media profile through appearances on TV shows such as Good Morning Britain – where he was grilled by Piers Morgan – and Question Time.

But it’s not all been plain sailing. A BBC investigation in January found that Iceland was still selling some of its own-brand products containing palm oil, despite having pledged to stop doing so by the end of 2018. The company blamed a "website issue". It also blamed technical problems after it was found to have removed its own-label branding from 17 products that still contained palm oil.

Meanwhile, some have questioned the merits of Iceland’s environmental pledges; arguing, for example, that pushing for sustainable palm oil would be better than removing it altogether.

PRWeek caught up with the frozen-food supremo via email about handling positive and negative publicity, frozen food’s image makeover, and being a "millennial MD".

PRW: How does the leadership dynamic work between yourself and your father?

RW: My father is our executive chairman. He’s still very hands-on and we continue to learn from him every day. Since I became managing director I have taken responsibility for people and stores, as well as being MD of The Food Warehouse, our larger-store-format brand. My dad is very keen to give me full autonomy in these areas, but of course he is an unrivalled source of advice, having run the business for close to 50 years.

When did you start being interested in environmental causes?

I have considered myself an environmentalist for years. I studied geography at university, which broadened my understanding of the challenges our planet faces, but a lot of my passion for environmental causes comes from my personal interests. I’m a keen surfer and climber and both these pursuits have enabled me to see the effects of the environmental crisis we face first-hand.

What have been the biggest communications challenges around the plastics and palm-oil pledges, and what messages have you focused on?

We have been challenged by the fact that people often think it is only the middle classes that care about the planet. I genuinely think this is a complete myth. In fact we conducted a large-scale consumer survey, which showed that 80 per cent of consumers supported our move to go plastic-free. The issues we have taken action on affect our planet every day and are relevant to everyone.

Our biggest challenge in terms of palm oil was that awareness of the issues were relatively low – 35 per cent of consumers were unaware of what palm oil was when we made our commitment. Our message throughout has been one of giving customers a choice – we are only two per cent of the market and we can’t change the world overnight, but we feel a responsibility to do the right thing and offer our customers (and new shoppers) more sustainable choices.

It feels to me like there is a huge job to be done in democratising sustainability. There are four million kids living below the poverty line in the UK, most with working parents. Ethical choices for consumers should not be based on them paying a premium, and that means businesses innovating and taking responsibility.

How much progress has been made towards the goal of ridding all own-brand products of plastic by 2023?

As you’ll appreciate, we have set ourselves a massive goal and this is made even more challenging [because] we are the first major retailer to do it. In a lot of cases we are having to work with the packaging industry to find and develop new solutions – it’s not just a case of switching to something already out there. However, we are progressing well.

We removed 1,500 tonnes of plastic packaging last year. We are well ahead [on] converting our ready-meal ranges from black plastic to recyclable board trays. We’ve found plastic-free solutions in fresh produce, for products such as bananas and lemons, and have eliminated single-use plastic carrier bags. Our focus is now on finding solutions for our most popular ranges so we can take further steps toward reaching our commitment. As a retailer, these are interesting times, with major policy changes on the horizon that will impact what we do, so our plans have to be dynamic.

How did the collaboration with Greenpeace for the "Rang-tan" film come about?

We worked very closely with Greenpeace on our sustainability commitments – it is a critical advisor to Iceland and we’ve been very grateful for its support along the way. It launched "Rang-tan" last summer, and we loved it straight away. We supported it across our channels, but knew we could do more. It was the perfect asset to raise awareness of the issue of tropical deforestation and we instigated a conversation with Greenpeace on using it as our Christmas ad in the autumn.

Did you know it would be rejected by Clearcast?

No. Not at all. And we were gutted. We had already booked the slots for our ad to be aired. During the following weeks, Clearcast expressed its concerns to us and we gradually started to realise it wasn’t going to be as simple as we’d hoped. We were devastated when we heard the outcome, but ultimately the ad reached more people than we could have dreamed of.

Were you surprised by the reaction to the film?

I was a little overwhelmed by the speed at which things happened – we had global attention within hours of uploading the video to YouTube. However, I wasn’t surprised that the public felt so moved by the film and the issues raised – palm oil is everywhere and the film brings the issues of tropical deforestation to life in a very compelling way. We were able to hijack the Christmas ad conversation and move it towards raising awareness of an environmental issue, and I’m very proud of that.

What has been the business impact of the film?

Our corporate reputation was, and still is, at an all-time high. Independent analysis shows that customers have never trusted the brand so much, or felt more inclined to shop with us. I can’t say that "Rang-tan" boosted our sales overnight, but this was never the intention. We wanted to further raise awareness of the issue and mark the culmination of our palm-oil-removal process, and I can’t think of a better way for us to have done that.

How damaging were the revelations in the BBC investigation that found some Iceland own-brand products still contained palm oil by the start of this year?

In some ways the BBC did us a favour: for example, it raised some errors in ingredients listings on our website, which were promptly corrected. Sometimes when you try to do the right thing, there will be someone trying to trip you up, and that’s such a shame as it discourages other businesses from making similar commitments. We were able to set our story straight and we had nothing at all to hide – we’d fulfilled our commitment in its entirety. It’s fair to say, though, that we learned a lesson in the need for proactive communication.

Even before the BBC story, you’ve had your critics. For example, those who say other crops are more damaging than palm oil, and that using sustainable palm oil is a better approach. Some of these – such as [pro-palm-oil campaign group] Faces of Palm Oil – have been quite personal. What do you consider the best way to deal with these counter-arguments and attacks?

Iceland has a long history of campaigning and leading positive change, and unfortunately, facing criticism can be a side-effect of this. We’ve taken some bold steps and we don’t always do things by the book, but our actions are always considered and responsible. As a leader, you’re always learning, and facing criticism is part of that journey, but Iceland strives to operate with integrity, which means we always have a solid defence for our actions.

How do you find the media part of your role?

The media is becoming increasingly important to our business, particularly as the landscape changes and customers are interacting with brands in new ways. I believe that the media gives us an unrivalled platform from which to communicate with the public, particularly in terms of environmental issues which should be top of the agenda. As a commentator I also realise that the relationship with the media has to span difficult conversations as well as positive ones, which is why I agreed to be interviewed about the BBC story on palm oil.

Which media channels are most important to you personally?

I have diversified the titles I read and platforms I follow – this is so important in understanding different viewpoints and what is really striking a chord with the public. I read everything from The Guardian and BBC News to LADbible and Wavelength (a surfing magazine). I spend a lot of time on the move, so I get a lot of my news from Twitter.

You’re very active on social media, particularly around environmental causes. How important is social as a communications channel – to you and to the business?

It’s getting more and more important. The news agenda is so fast-paced and social media plays an important role in making current affairs accessible to everyone. It has really opened up the conversation and we’re no longer being talked at, but instead being invited to join in the debate.

I’ve used Twitter a lot in the past 12 months to respond to relevant stories, putting my perspective across and engaging with journalists, influencers and the public. Social media has played a huge role in Iceland’s journey in recent years, and ‘Rang-tan’ going viral is just one example of this.

How important to do you consider PR to Iceland, as compared with advertising and marketing?

To me, PR is all about building trust and protecting our reputation. Of course, advertising and other marketing channels have their role to play, but PR is all about creating an environment in which other marketing activity can do its job. We can’t sell products if the public doesn’t believe in our brand or doesn’t have trust in our ethics – and the rise of the conscious consumer is making PR more relevant than ever. 

How do you find working with PR and other marketing communications agencies? (Iceland’s roster includes Weber Shandwick for PR and Tangerine for social media.)

I like to see agencies as partners – it’s a cliché, but they are extension of our business and they can only represent us in the best way by making this so. They are the experts in their respective fields and I’ve learned a lot by listening to their advice and, indeed, their challenges to us as a business. It helps that our internal PR specialists are based on the executive corridor with an open door to the Board – we work as a team.

Frozen food is "cool" again, with sales rising. Why is that?

Frozen food has always been cool! But of course it has been subjected to unnecessary snobbery over the years. I think it’s partly down to frozen having an image "rehaul", thanks to top chefs championing its benefits, and retailers and brands launching excellent-quality ranges in frozen.

More importantly, frozen food responds perfectly to the needs of today’s shopper – value and convenience with low waste.

The interesting future debate will be about frozen food’s contribution to the environment. We have studies that show families can halve their food waste by choosing frozen.

How have the environmental pledges and the subsequent publicity changed how the brand is widely viewed?

We know that our environmental pledges have increased consideration among a different type of consumer. We are seeing more ABC1s through the doors of our stores than ever and significant interest from young people across all demographics – including people wanting to work for us. Iceland products are now promoted by media titles that previously wouldn’t have included our products on their pages.

We’ll always offer everyday products at the lowest prices, but that doesn’t need to equate to a negative image of cheap, bad food. I think we’re seeing a perfect storm of two drivers that go hand-in-hand – it’s more relevant than ever to be environmentally conscious, frozen has benefited from an image makeover and therefore, hopefully, it’s cool to shop at Iceland in 2019.

What have been the most significant effects on business of the environmental policies?

Our environmental pledges have had a huge impact on our business operations. They affect every single member of staff, supplier and customer in some way. We have delivered on our palm-oil commitment without passing on a penny in costs to our customers, and plan to do exactly the same in relation to plastics. This means a lot of internal investment and, frankly, hard work on the part of our colleagues, and I am proud of each and every one of them for supporting our chosen direction.

There’s much talk these days about companies having a wider "purpose" beyond making money. How do you view that trend?

There are so many businesses that pile their stock high and sell it cheap, with no regard for their impact on the outside world. Of course we need to make money, but we need to think about the future and what really matters to our consumers. I’m an environmentalist, but even as a business person I can see that we wouldn’t have a future as a retailer if we didn’t think beyond our bottom line and ignored the values of our customers. It’s just common sense that we need to be future-proof – in terms of responding to what’s going on in the world around us, but also by responding to the growing movement towards conscious consumerism.

What, if anything, does being a millennial boss mean to you?

It means a lot to me. I’ve grown up with an understanding of environmental issues, which weren’t as prevalent when my dad was growing up. I have a seat at the table and I’m able to put forward issues that matter to millennials and ensure these are incorporated into the future of our business.

This article originally appeared on PR Week