Vitacress Salads: Reputation Management

The Challenge

Vitacress Salads is the leading grower of watercress, and its headquarters stand on the banks of the River Test – revered for providing outstanding biodiversity and some of the world’s best trout fly-fishing. The alkaline spring water also makes chalk stream headwaters the ideal location for watercress farming, and production has been taking place alongside chalk streams in England for over 200 years.

The company had been accused of polluting the hallowed waters of the Test with its watercress production. The Environment Agency had detected ‘a subtle invertebrate imbalance’ in rivers where commercial watercress beds were present, characterised by reduced populations of freshwater shrimps.

But Vitacress was pumping no chemicals into the river and in fact had an excellent environmental record, having invested heavily in scientific research to find out where the problem lay. Extensive research led by their Technical Director Steve Rothwell found the real cause was a naturally occurring mustard oil which is released by watercress when rubbing against the river walls. Quickly a fix was found by introducing a new stage into the production process of thoroughly washing the watercress in fresh spring water to rinse off the mustard oil, and quickly the river’s ecosystems began to recover. 

The Solution

Beset by negative publicity and a raft of complaints from fishermen and local landowners, Vitacress’ reputation was being damaged by inaccurate assumptions and negative publicity.

I worked with the company on a programme to re-establish their strong environmental credentials, specifically working to gain exposure for the causal effect the technical team had discovered, and to promote both the scientific discovery they had made, and  a river restoration project Vitacress had undertaken on the site of the company’s watercress farm on the Chalk Stream in Hampshire. The resulting raft of accurate coverage which included half page in the Daily Telegraph, and later BBC South and a Countryfile piece set the record straight as well as showcasing Vitacress’ restoration and research work. I went on to advise the company’s conservation arm, the Vitacress Conservation Trust (VCT) on marketing and communications matters for several years.