Monday, March 29, 2010

The Price of Fame

It was reported recently that Paul Rankin, Northern Irish celebrity chef, familiar from his regular appearances on TV, is also fairly big in FMCG. His Rankin Selection brand, including such products as pork sausages, soda bread and potato farls, has a turnover of £30 million per year. Coming in the week that Fred Perry announced that Amy Winehouse is designing a line of clothing, it got us thinking about the power of celebrity branding versus design.

Celebrity licenses are an awkward proposition for packaging designers – they are rarely conducive to great creativity, often not much more sophisticated than sticking a familiar face in question on the pack alongside the product itself. If this approach sells more product than our meticulously crafted designs then what does that say about the value of creativity? The reality is that celebrity is volatile, as Tiger Woods has recently proven. Celebrities are brands, and when they move into the food and drink market their brands need to be managed and protected just like any other.

Gordon Ramsay’s retail presence extends to a couple of chocolate selections, which by his own admission he does not rate. It is unlikely that the people at Kraft, surveying their newly acquired Cadbury brands, will be losing sleep. Jamie Oliver, on the other hand, has developed a portfolio of sub-brands to enable him to extend into multiple different categories, all of them a neat fit with his personality and values.

Of the top products of last year, reported in The Grocer in December, the only celebrity-endorsed brands are Lloyd Grossman in the cooking sauces category, and Ainsley Harriott Cup Soup, comfortably outsold by Batchelors. Powdered Cup Soup seems like an odd choice for a chef, but with Ainsley’s reputation for simplifying – witness his Fairy Power Spray ad campaign – there is a link. The varieties on offer are sufficiently adventurous to justify the celebrity tag. But brands like Phileas Fogg or New Covent Garden are equally well placed to guide consumers into new territory. And they come without the hassle (and price tag) of a celebrity license.

At the Grocer Food and Drink Awards, Ainsley’s Thai Chicken & Lemongrass Cup Soup, and Marco Pierre White’s Glorious, lost out to New Covent Garden’s Beef & Irish Stout in the soup category. Glorious also lost out in Chilled Savoury to Mash Direct. James Martin Belgian Chocolate Fondant Mix finished behind Mrs Crimble’s Gluten Free Bread in Bakery. The winners were selected not just based on the jury’s opinions, but also on the results of an online research programme using a consumer panel.

This would seem to suggest that genuine innovation and high-quality design can win out over celebrity endorsement. If you can combine the two, as Oliver’s has done, then you are on to a winner. But as far as Amy Winehouse branching out into other artistic endeavours goes, our response, to quote the lady in question, would have to be “No, no, no.”

Friday, March 5, 2010

A love/hate relationship? No thanks.

A few months back, we had a number of breakfast-related projects going through the studio. In one brainstorm we were debating the merits of breakfast on-the-go, and the subject of cereal bars obviously came up. One individual felt particularly strongly about the predominance of sweet variants, and the lack of a convenient on-the-go option for those, like him, who preferred their breakfast savoury. "Where", he wondered, "is the cereal bar equivalent of Marmite on toast?"

Well, now we know. It's on the shelves, in the shape of the new Marmite cereal bar. Strategically, this makes perfect sense of course, with the on-the-go market booming, and none of the other savoury snack brands having come up with a cereal bar. Theoretically, Marmite can hang on to existing consumers who are suddenly too busy to make toast in the mornings, and attract some new users who don't eat Marmite the spread but are nevertheless in the market for a savoury bar.

They were giving them out free on Marylebone Station this week, supporting a clever ad campaign featuring lots of outlandish possible Marmite products with the strapline "Have we gone too far?" Obviously we all tried them - design is hungry work. Sadly for the Marmite brand team, though, who declared boldly "Consumers really will either love it or hate it." (Daily Mirror, 25/10/09), the overwhelming reaction amongst the team was one of complete indifference.

Therein lies the problem with the kind of provocative positioning adopted by the likes of Marmite, Yorkie and Pot Noodle. The idea is that those people who are already consumers get a buzz and a certain pride out of being amongst the chosen few, and everyone else is driven to try the product by a bit of reverse psychology - if you say this is not for me, then I am jolly well going to have it. But when the product does not live up to promise, it ends up looking a little hollow.

Marmite, the spread, really does divide consumers because it is unique, unmistakeable, a bit eccentric, and above all it is potent - a little goes a long way. The unfortunate truth about the cereal bars is that they do not look any different from any other product in the category, they are tough and dry and taste vaguely of Marmite. Hardly enough to inspire extremes of emotion.

Perhaps they really have gone too far.