Bubble Trouble

Having survived two world wars and 150 years of competition, R Whites lemonade is facing its most serious test yet in the form of own-label competition

.It is difficult to know whether Robert White, the original founder of R Whites lemonade, would be pleased or horrified by the association his name has in the public’s affection in 1995.

As the R Whites lemonade brand reaches its 150th birthday next week, the name is primarily associated with a man in striped pyjamas skulking down to the fridge in the middle of the night to grab a drink.

It is not known whether the original Mr R White was in the habit of breaking from his slumber to seek clandestine refreshment. But it is testimony to the original Allen Brady Marsh advertising campaign that the image persists.

What Mr White is known to have done is set up a barrow business in 1845 selling home-brewed beer. He and his wife, Mary, later expanded the range to include lemonade, ginger ale and pineapple soda. They also expanded the family business to include their sons, who in turn built it into a 500,000 operation by 1894.

But getting the brand to its 150th birthday has been an eventful and difficult task. The company had to fight its way through the devastation of World War I when it was hit by rising raw material costs and the departure of more than 100 R Whites employees and half of its horses to support of the war effort.

Later it was hit by the Blitz, which damaged all its London factories and left the company barely able to celebrate its centenary in 1945.

R Whites became part of the Britvic Soft Drinks portfolio through a complex series of mergers. Having merged with the Whitbread Group in 1969 it, and HD Rawlings, then merged with the soft drinks division of Bass – Canada Dry – to form Canada Dry Rawlings in 1980. This in turn merged with Britvic in March 1986 to form today’s Britvic Soft Drinks.

Although Britvic claims its position is secure and that consumers are remaining loyal to the brand, Nielsen figures for July 1995 show R Whites is taking a severe knocking from own-label.

Once dominated by cheap, poor quality wannabes, the soft drinks own-label sector has recently undergone a turnaround, with companies such as the Cott Corporation bringing out high quality own-label brands at cheaper prices than the branded rivals.

Nielsen figures show R Whites took just a 5.8 per cent share by volume of the lemonade sector in July, compared to own-label brands which took 57.1 per cent.

Back in July 1992, R Whites held a 4.6 per cent share of the market and so has increased in the past three years. But ominously, its greatest rival – own-label – has grown nine per cent in the same period from 48.1 per cent with the own-label Cresta moving from nothing to 16.5 per cent.

“Private label is so strong,” says Tom Blackett, deputy chairman of Interbrand, “I think some of the strong brand values for R Whites have recently fallen away, so the odds are probably stacked against it making

it through the next 150 years, although I hope it will.”

Part of the problem, says Blackett, is that Britvic is not putting enough advertising support behind the brand – only 260,000 was spent in the 12 months to July. The brand is still primarily known for its “Secret Lemonade Drinker” campaign, developed by Allen Brady Marsh in 1973. With the demise of the agency in 1991 the account was surrendered to Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury – but the creative theme remained. This has resulted in a brand with a 150-year heritage being forever associated with badly cut pyjamas.

Although the campaign has proved popular – even attracting its own fan club of pyjama-clad followers who meet regularly to play football – it has also proved a limitation. The 22-year-old campaign may finally be about to come to an end.

Britvic marketing manager Richard Manaton, who joined the company in February to oversee the R Whites brand says: “The Secret Lemonade Drinker, at the moment, is continuing. But things must move on. This campaign has been very successful in Britain, but the brand is older and has more heritage than the Secret Lemonade Drinker. Some of those elements are not recalled.”

The original ad from 1973 featured a father and son singing team on backing vocals – Ross and Declan McManus. Declan later became Elvis Costello. But celebrity connections have since included Paul Daniels, the late Frankie Howerd, Ronnie Corbett and tennis star John McEnroe who wore a woman’s nightdress in R Whites’ ads in November 1992.

Britvic is making efforts to regenerate its brand, if not the creative work. The drink was reformulated 18 months ago, introducing real lemons into the recipe. And for its 150th birthday it has commissioned Storyboard to redesign its packaging, adding a transparent label to the bottle. A door-to-door sampling drop and a high-profile birthday party to push the brand’s heritage are also being staged this month.

Buyers are also reporting that Britvic is pushing to rebuild its brand at retail level. “We have done quite a bit of work this year to rebuild R Whites’ position. Britvic has been putting a lot of support behind the brand and we had an exclusive deal with the company to sell one-litre bottles,” says Dean Dawson, trading controller of retail chain Londis.

“The result that R Whites has made rather impressive gains this summer,” claims Dawson. However, he points out that the R Whites sales spurt must be taken in the context of a long hot summer that boosted all soft drinks sales.

The prospect of the brand making it through another 150 years is uncertain. Manaton says it will survive if it can be kept “as fresh and vital as it ever was”, but it is unclear how it will evolve.

Growth sectors in the soft drinks market over the past year have included a move to the “cloudy” traditional lemonade drinks, although Britvic insists R Whites will remain clear. They also include a shift towards healthier, sugar-free “New Age” drinks although again, Britvic says no more reformulations are planned. There is also an unprecedented demand for alcoholic lemonade, but despite its alcoholic roots Britvic says R Whites will not take that path.

In its birthday party invite Britvic talks enthusiastically about its plans for R Whites’ 300th birthday in the 22nd century. It is a nice thought. But having survived two world wars the cut-throat battle with the own-label manufacturers could prove a fight too far.

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