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Peter York: By building a brand in his own image, he made a fortune


The whole Bernard Matthews story has been riveting and an had obvious potential as an MBA thesis – or one of Malcolm Bradbury's way-we-live-now funny novels.

This was a man who built a convenience-food empire on turkey meat. And he did it by belonging to that peculiar group of larger-than-life entrepreneurs who become the faces of their often-eponymous businesses, and appear in their own advertising. People like Sirs Alan Sugar and Richard Branson and, if you go further back, Sir Thomas Lipton, the tea merchant who, over a century ago, became a walking, talking – and sailing – brand by competing in the America's Cup.

His company was no titan in the business world but one of those medium-sized firms so focused on marketing that they have disproportionately large advertising accounts so that they become familiar to everybody in the land. Matthews, by looking and sounding the part as a friendly farmer, was the perfect face.

He was also one of the great diffusers. He created a working-class brand and never attempted to take it up in the world. He has entered a place in social history by introducing the working classes to then-unheard-of delicacies. We have to remember that he started in a time before food processing and when gorgeous, glowing turkeys were out of the reach of most consumers, along with salmon and champagne.

Now, of course, in the age of animal welfare and Jamie Oliver's war against Turkey Twizzlers, Matthews' products have, to some extent, become despised by smart people. But he stayed true to his constituency. There has remained a need for convenience food for ordinary people while all about us rages a middle-class fantasy of organic food and farmers' markets.

To be sure not everyone will mourn Matthews – or cares for the approach to food he represented – but he was a remarkable man of the like we won't see again.