Why some food brands are timeless

Why isn’t there a ‘UK Gold’ section of the supermarket? There could be, with all the old, established well-loved (if a little faded) brands that still populate the shelves.

I was prompted to think about this by chancing upon an old Tommy Cooper show when flicking around the TV recently. Tommy had his heyday back in the 1970’s, and much of his best stuff – “glass…bottle…bottle…glass” (Google it!) – is in black and white. And yet I defy you not to laugh at the man. If you simply read his jokes many will probably make you cringe, but if you watch Tommy deliver them they are infectious.

That’s why the likes of Tommy Cooper, Dad’s Army, Morecambe & Wise and Fawlty Towers still have a place in the television schedules.

Good comedy is timeless, and the same – to some degree – could be said for good food brands.

In amongst the sparkling new high protein energy balls and lacto-free, wheat-free, sugar-free desserts on our supermarket shelves there are plenty of examples of brands that have stood the test of time. Some, like Coca Cola, have steadily adapted their brand stories and product offerings over a century or more to remain relevant and vibrant for each new generation. A ton of marketing investment and ubiquitous presence helps as well…

For others, though, a period of slow decline, a lack of investment, or a change in eating habits have made them feel less relevant.

‘Back of mind, back of cupboard’ is a phrase we’ve used to describe a few of the faded former stars that we’ve been asked to breathe new life into over the years.

They are there in the supermarket, but are now tucked away on either the top shelf, or, more often and more worryingly, the bottom one, with a solitary, lonely facing.

Many are the kind of simple, staple products that were a fixture in every household in the 1960’s, 70’s or 80’s. Often ambient, easily stored, versatile and with a broad appeal. A safe choice, a good stand-by – something to ‘always have in’.

Here are a few examples; Crosse & Blackwell, Homepride, Atora, Batchelors, Maxwell House, Robertson’s, Crisp n’Dry, Fray Bentos. If you asked consumers to personify them you’d end up with Captain Mainwaring’s platoon.

Clearly, some of these brands are closely associated with a product or category that has either become less relevant (suet) or been superceded by fresher, more appealing alternatives (tinned pies). However, others have been trying to modernise their ranges, or to stretch into new formats or sectors.

Take the example of Uncle Ben’s rice. It’s been around for years, operating successfully in a largely commoditised sector, but managing to stay relevant and prominent on shelf through a succession of product innovations that have offered the promise of greater convenience, quality and flavour. ‘Boil in the Bag’ has evolved into the microwaveable pouches of today, in sufficient variety to create a striking ‘wall’ of Uncle Ben’s on the supermarket fixture that feels perfectly up-to-date.

And just as a brand can be revived and made appealing to a new generation, so too can a category. Loose leaf tea had all but disappeared from retailers’ shelves a few years ago. However, the growth of premium, flavoured and herbal varieties has re-awakened interest in the category by driving a consumer desire for better, more interesting teas.

Tea has begun to follow the lead from coffee in recognising the benefits of a properly made brew, so returning full circle to the concept of pouring boiled water over leaves and allowing a little time for the flavour to infuse, rather than accepting the instant but lesser gratification offered by a tea bag. Not everyone has the time or dedication to commit fully to the tea-pot just yet, but there is definitely an emerging trend, and this offers opportunities to bring fresh life to the mainstream tea brands that have seemed increasingly dusty of late.

Creating a new brand can (and should) be exciting, but it’s also bloody hard. New brands take time and considerable investment to lodge firmly into consumers’ minds and habits.

Just getting them onto the supermarket shelves in the first place is a challenging task, and then creating the awareness and demand to drive sales to a level to keep them there is even more difficult.

No wonder then that taking an established branded property and re-purposing it – amending the product, updating the packaging, entering a new sector, or re-framing the brand story – should be worth considering. It’s a bit like pruning a rose and giving it a bit of a feed to encourage a fresh round of blooms. Something that The Brand Nursery knows a thing or two about.

Words by Chris Blythe