Spreading only so far

The launch of an easier-to-spread variant was intended to increase consumption of the iconic spread, but the ‘love it or hate it’ factor limits its appeal, says Caroline Parry

Love it or hate it, Marmite has become one of the most iconic brands in the UK. Unilever Foods has owned the brand since 2000 and has built the savoury spread into a £33m product by playing on its distinctive – and polarising – flavour.

The yeast extract commands a loyal consumer base that eats 370,000 tonnes of the brown stuff every year. Now Unilever is focusing on increasing consumption with innovations such as Marmite Squeezy.

The new variant, in a plastic squeezy bottle, was launched in March and has a slightly runnier formulation that makes it easier to spread on soft bread and sandwiches. The new product aims to help Marmite compete with the vast array of savoury spreads available.

The launch has been supported by a £3m advertising campaign, which includes relaunching the brand as Marmart until the end of October.

The online campaign, developed by Tribal DDB, encourages consumers to draw pictures on toast or bread using the new squeezy bottle and then submit them to a website (MW last week).

Noam Buchalter, senior brand development manager at Unilever, says consumers found it hard to spread Marmite from a glass jar on softer products such as untoasted bread, thus limiting consumption to toast at breakfast, a meal that is in decline. “People will find it easier to get the Marmite hit and do so in different ways,” says Buchalter.

He is quick to point out that the iconic glass jar will not be phased out and the squeezy variant is simply a functional, convenient addition to the brand.

Marmite’s Love it/Hate it advertising campaign, which was created by its agency DDB London, has been running for ten years and has become synonymous with the brand. The campaign has an online presence consisting of a website that has an area for “lovers” and “haters” of the product and a forum for consumers to discuss the brand.

Adrian Goldthorpe, vice-president of strategy and innovation at FutureBrand, says: “[The campaign] has leveraged the consumer reaction to the product; even if you hate it, you tend to like the brand. It has elevated a difficult product to a successful level.”

Goldthorpe says that the launch of Squeezy Marmite was a “no brainer” but believes the brand struggles with real innovation and new product development because of its distinctive flavour. He points out that other products with a strong flavour, such as Branston Pickle, have managed to develop into new areas such as baked beans because they can be added to foodstuffs.

Marmite, which was originally positioned as a stock rather than a spread, has been developed into crisps and biscuits as a branded ingredient but the opportunities to extend the brand further remain limited. As such, increasing consumption of the product by making it more convenient to use against other savoury spreads will be the key to growth.

Buchalter says Unilever is looking at “ways of making the flavour more accessible” but declines to comment any further. He says that value sales of the brand grew between 2.5% to 3% last year, while Marmite has a 25% penetration of UK households. He believes there is potential to increase that figure to 50% by reigniting interest among lapsed users and highlighting different uses.

But again, this growth will be limited to consumers who already like the product, because it is hard to convert people to eating Marmite if they did not acquire a taste for it as a child.

Paul Cousins, founder of consultancy Catalyst Marketing Services, believes the success of Marmite is down to consistency of the brand message and the quirkiness of the product. He says: “There is no reason why it can’t continue for generations but there is a ceiling for how big the brand can grow.”

Marmite has won a place in the hearts of UK consumers because it does not take itself too seriously and realises that it is not everyone’s cup of tea. Lucy Jameson, head of planning at DDB, believes that as long as the brand continues to roll out fresh advertising campaigns, it will remain a stalwart of UK food cupboards. She says: “It is a slightly idiosyncratic British thing; a product we are quite proud of.”

Facts and figures

• Marmite was launched in 1902 by the Burton-on-Trent-based Marmite Food Company. The brand was acquired by Unilever in 2000.
• The spread is a yeast extract containing five “B” vitamins, which are good for the nervous system, muscle tone, skin, eyes, liver and hair.
• Marmite was included in First World War soldiers’ rations and fed to prisoners of war as a dietary supplement in the Second World War. It was also sent to peacekeeping troops in Kosovo to boost morale in 1999.
• The name “Marmite” derives from a French word meaning an earthenware pot, which the spread was once sold in. The design of the glass jar is based on the pot and a picture of one features on the front of bottles.

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