Eggs, Edwina Currie and confidence after covid

How do we re-establish confidence in people likely to be scared of getting together in cafes, coffee shops, gyms, cinemas and pubs? Asks Harbour Collective's Strategy Partner Kevin Chesters

To say that Covid-19 has been a challenge to every business and brand in the country would be something of an understatement.

Now we face the new challenge of the reopening of the UK economy, we are not short of opinions on what is going to happen and why everything will either stay the same/change forever (delete as appropriate). But one shared key challenge will be how to re-establish consumer confidence in people who will likely be scared getting together in cafes, coffee shops, gyms, cinemas and pubs. Lots of commentators are talking about what we can learn from past recessions. But I think that there is more to learn from looking at previous societal scares and how industries reacted to restore confidence.

And one in particular. The great 1988 Salmonella/Egg scare.

On December 3rd, 1988, the then Junior Health Minister Edwina Currie caused something of a stir with a statement she later claimed was a slip of the tongue: 'Most of the egg production in this country sadly is now infected with salmonella.' The result? Consumer confidence evaporated. An industry collapsed. The bottom fell out of the egg world faster than an egg falls out of a chicken. Sales fell 60% overnight. 4m hens were killed, 400m eggs were binned and Edwina’s ministerial career went the same way (sacked a fortnight later).

So, what does all this have to do with Covid-19 and how industries like cinema, fitness and hospitality can recover? And especially what does this have to do with the theme of community and togetherness? Well, quite a lot. Because the response of the egg industry can teach us a lot about what to do, and what not to do, to restore consumer confidence.

1/ Be united

As well as coming together to heartily put the boot into Mrs Currie, the egg industry also came together with a coordinated, collective response. This is a learning for Covid-19. Industries should put aside traditional rivalries and present a united message to consumers. If they want to establish safety and confidence for getting back together at cinemas or gyms or coffee shops then it’d be a good idea to present a consistent, united front.

2/ Be quick

The industry took some very decisive and public steps to reassure everyone that they were taking action. The unfortunate culling of 4m chickens and the messy dispatching of 400m unwanted eggs happened within weeks. The learning here for Covid-19 is to do the same to show the public that safety is paramount. There were/are 11 different companies in the British Egg Industry Council and they acted together. Perhaps industry bodies for the relevant industries in 2020 could coordinate in the same way.

3/ Be clear

Create a set of sensible and clear guidelines for what to do and not do when we return post-covid. The egg industry published some very clear advice about raw and cooked eggs within days of Currie’s words. A lesson to learn.

4/ Be committed

The egg industry didn’t just expect a swift return of confidence. It actually spent a few quid. It pooled some resource and ran a national advertising campaign with the slogan 'Eggs Are Safe' to reassure the public (it sort of didn’t, and I’ll come onto that in a minute). But, it’s worth the UK Cinema Association, BBPA or UK Hospitality thinking about investing a little in public advertising now to reap a lot in terms of consumer confidence.

5/ Be official

Having an official body to represent all egg producers definitely helped here. The industry developed and launched the Lion Mark to establish confidence in quality and safety (admittedly only in 1998) but such stamps do help. I’m not sure what the answer is for Covid-19 but maybe there is a cleanliness stamp, or an official 10-point checklist the government could endorse. Who knows? But the Lion Mark certainly acts as a mark of quality, confidence and safety for the egg world.

And what was the result? Well... egg sales did return to pre-Edwina levels. But, here’s the punchline, it took TWENTY-NINE YEARS! It was 2017 before the full impact of Ms Curries ill-spoken statement was properly reversed. (Note: the government did subsequently prove and the industry reluctantly admitted that Currie was largely stating a fact when she spoke, but let’s leave that for the moment).


So, what could they have done better and what do we think we should do about Covid-19 to make sure confidence returns more quickly?

Three things they could have done better; Three lessons to learn for businesses and sectors in 2020 for (re) establishing confidence.

1/ Be more transparent

The government were awful and the industry were a little opaque in 1988. In my opinion, the confidence could have been restored more quickly if only people had been a bit more honest. They weren’t, so rumour and fear filled the vacuum. Be open, honest and clear with people.

2/ Be more positive

Covid-19 has been a proper, scary pandemic. And it has led to a massive societal shock and an appalling loss of life. But it is worth remembering that everyone knows that. The salmonella scare (and later BSE/vCJD scares) were both actually over-stated but importantly the language used to reassure often had the opposite effect. It is worth being very careful over the style and language of any post Covid campaigns to restore confidence. Be careful that you don’t have the opposite effect.

3/ Be aware of language

I’d argue that the wording of the ad campaign “Eggs Are Safe” was one of the worst things that happened in the whole sorry mess. It raises every level of human suspicion possible. My suggestion would have been to say something more like “Eggs are Delicious.”. Remind people what they liked about the product, not what they were scared of. For a post-Covid world I think you’re more likely to go back to the cinema because you love film rather than how often they’ve disinfected the foyer.

Hope that helped. This is a very unusual time. So, my advice is to look in some more unusual places for the answers.

But the main lesson from Edwina and the eggs?

Act collectively. United and coordinated action is likely to re-establish confidence quicker. And we need all the help we can get.

Come together, right now.

This article was taken from issue 6 of Marketing Society publication EMPOWER. Read the archive here.