Mouth-watering marketing

By The Drum, Administrator

January 28, 2004 | 10 min read

“We like to think of them as the Marmite of the confectionery world.” This is not, I imagine, a strapline that we will see Swizzels Matlow employing in the near future.

Andrew Matlow – no, the name is not a coincidence – the associate marketing director of the legendary Derbyshire-based firm, is eulogising about one of his products, one that makes me feel ill every time I foolishly pop one in my gob. They taste like perfume, they look like medicine and to me they equate to the confectionery equivalent of a blue rinse. It’s safe to say that I do not like Parma Violets.

When Mr Matlow hears this he just smiles all the more. He’s a very happy man, but then working in a sweet factory I guess you would be.

“Well, I love them,” he says, as a sniff confirms he’s exhaling lavender fumes. “But that’s the whole point – that’s where the Marmite comparison comes from. It’s one of those products that always gets a reaction and, love them or hate them, you’ll be passionate about that reaction.

“We had a story out a couple of months ago when we were toying, just toying, with the idea of changing the recipe a little to make them more universally appealing. We put the story out to the press (he thanks Manchester’s Brazen PR for that) and there was a huge reaction. A lot of the national titles picked up on it and we even had the Star campaigning to ‘Save the Parma Violets’. It was fantastic coverage and, as you can imagine, we left the recipe exactly as it was. Evidently that’s the appeal.”

Seeing that I’m not going to persuade him to stop producing a brand that’s been rolling off the production line and into sado-masochists’ mouths since the 1940s, we move on.

Mentioning the PR aspect of his role, you start to get a flavour for the thinking that keeps Swizzels Matlow brands in such a sweet market position – despite a marketing spend that, with all due respect, compared to, say, Haribo’s is about the size of a 2p chew. But it works.

Think of Love Hearts, think of Drumstick, think of Rainbow Drops and, yes, even think of Parma Violence, and you have brands that are as popular now as when you were a kid, whatever your age. These brands are a major, major success story – a story that looks set to run and run.

The genial, and generous (let’s just say I got slightly more than a 10p mix when I left) Mr Matlow puts this down to a multitude of factors.

“Statistics tell us that something like 75 per cent of sweets are bought by adults for consumption by children. It’s therefore vital to appeal to the parents. To ensure that we do this we always strive, in absolutely everything we do, to give tremendous value for money. That 10p going to the child should be able to buy the biggest chew bar they can feasibly get for their money. Therefore our 10p chew bar will be bigger than anyone else’s – even if it’s only by a gram or two – it will be bigger.”

But, as some very kind person once told me, surely size isn’t everything? There must be more to it than that?

“Obviously,” smiles Matlow. “We’ve grown a company that has a great heritage and a great reputation. Because of that, if a parent sees a Swizzels Matlow logo on a product there’ll be an in-built element of persuasion there. They’ll think ‘Hmm, why not give that a go.’”

He adds, “I often get asked why kids still buy our products and I answer, for the same reason the kids of yesterday did, and the ones before that, and the ones before that. A mother will buy her child a pack of Love Hearts because she knows the product, she’s eaten the product, she trusts the product and she likes the product. And if she’s enjoyed it, why wouldn’t her children? That thinking, that recommendation marketing, has been passed from generation to generation and that’s something that no marketing budget, whatever its size, can match.”

You can’t argue with common sense, so I don’t. Matlow doesn’t entrust all of his marketing to parent power though. As mentioned, he uses Brazen for PR (whom he believes have just helped the firm secure a half-hour TV documentary with Carlton/Central), numerous design firms, and Brilliant in Leeds for the creative and media to promote the internet side of the business, lovehearts.com.

However, his main above-the-line activity would probably be regarded by many sectors as slightly unconventional but it does make his marketing pound work pretty damn hard – which, as he freely admits, it has to.

“We’d love to spend £10 million a year promoting our products. Who wouldn’t? But the fact of the matter is we can’t, so why even think about it? And what’s the point of doing, say, one TV campaign a year just to get our brands out there for four weeks or so? Children are fickle consumers and once that promotion’s finished the interest will wane – so why bother?”

But, saying that, Swizzels brands do get coverage on TV ads, they do get space in popular kids’ titles and they do manage to reach a yearly audience of around 20 million children. How, I hear you ask? Well, it’s rather comical. Quite literally.

“Our major above-the-line activity stems from our relationship with DC Thomson and, in particular, their Beano and Dandy titles.” He explains, “Their core target market is pretty similar to ours – we’re talking generally about the four to fourteen age group – so there’s an instant synergy there. We give them product for cover mounting and they’ll give us advertising in the actual magazines themselves, plus exposure alongside their titles on the TV campaigns. It’s a nice little trade-off that gets us on national television, as well as providing great on-shelf profile with the cover mounting. It also marries together a number of perennially popular kids’ brands. We’ve had the relationship for about 15 to 20 years and it works incredibly well.”

It appears to be the ultimate case of “you scratch my back ...”where both parties are perfectly placed to reach each other’s itchy bits. The firm’s continuing place in kids’ hearts, and its market performance (it’s had seven consecutive years of growth, including 6 per cent last year in a stagnant market), demonstrates that the tactics, unlike a certain sweet I can think of, do not leave a bad taste in the mouth.

With Valentine’s Day approaching like an arrow from a cherub’s bow, talk inevitably switches to Swizzels Matlow’s most popular, and certainly most iconic, brand – Love Hearts. It’s interesting, and certainly very revealing, to see how vigilantly Matlow and the family firm guard their crowning jewel of a brand.

“We’re very careful about what we do,” he offers with complete conviction. “We’re quite a conservative company and we market to children – which is obviously a very sensitive consumer group – so we must take care. Speaking as we did about PR, there are a lot of cheap tricks we could do to get coverage. For example, we could get a great centre page spread with the Sun and half of Fleet Street if we launched X-rated Love Hearts. It’d be a huge one-hit wonder but ultimately it’d damage the brand so we’d never do it.”

Illustrating how vital it is to be a strong custodian, he moves on to the topic of licensing. “Licensing is something that we’ve only really got into in a big way in the last three years or so (thanks in part to their strong relationship with Entertainment Rights). At the moment, the big news for us there is Love Hearts Cosmetics, which is doing really, really well.

“It’s something parents feel safe with. If you’ve got a young girl it’s natural that she’s going to want to try make-up at some point, but what are you going to do – buy her the latest Estee Lauder range? With Love Hearts you have the perfect fix. But would you still be comfortable making that choice if you’ve just read a centre page spread on our new triple x range? Perhaps not.”

As well as being strong enough to resist brand temptation, Matlow also has to flex his muscles when it comes to defending the use of his brands by third parties. “There’s a hell of a lot of people who try to use our marks illegally,” he reveals. “The Love Heart image, in particular, the physical appearance of the sweet, is actually our copyright and a lot of firms don’t seem to acknowledge that.”

It seems that advertising agencies are the chief culprits when it comes to sticking their dirty digits in the sweetie jar without asking.

“One case that was particularly high profile was when Love Hearts appeared in a nationwide poster campaign for the Samaritans. Now, the Samaritans is a fantastic operation providing a much needed service, but the ad agency involved didn’t ask our permission to use the brand and if they had done we’d have said no.”

Justifying the rigid stance, he expands, “We can’t afford to have any negativity associated with the brand whatsoever – the same thing would happen if someone like Ann Summers wanted to utilise it. It’s not what it stands for. It’s for the kids. And in the case of the Samaritans the sweet and the brand itself is there for the happy days, not the sad ones. It has joyful associations and that’s the way we have to keep it.”

“We got it all sorted out in the end,” Matlow concludes with that omnipresent smile of his. “ But, suffice it to say, it ended up costing the agency a lot of money.”

No love lost there then and, hopefully, no Love Heart brand equity either.

With an apparent “if it ain’t broke ...” company ethos and brands that maintain Herculean strength without ever having to work out much above the line, the Swizzels Matlow sweetie train looks unlikely to derail as it continues to deliver its cargo to over 50 satisfied countries around the world.

It’s an old-world success story that somehow still reads well with today’s fickle confectionery consumers. The public can’t help but love Swizzels’ brands. And, as I reverse over my Parma Violets and drive off looking at the rest of my free selection box, I can see why ...

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