Virtual kittens, ‘snacking smart’, and reformulation make up United Biscuits’ recipe for growth


By Seb Joseph, News editor

February 5, 2016 | 8 min read

United Biscuits is spreading the strategy that successfully rebooted McVitie’s to Jacob’s and Go Ahead as it doubles down on its biggest brands amid a wave of rationalisation from supermarkets.

The retail space is undergoing such rapid change that the biscuit maker wants to get the most out of its three master brands. Big brands have more people buying them so a focus on penetration is absolutely critical to growing all three biscuit ranges when retailers are cutting down on what they sell.

Fortunately for United Biscuits it has a strategy – developed in partnership with Grey - it knows works and is adapting the emotional approach that made McVitie’s famous to reframe Jacob’s and Go Ahead for a younger generation. Both brands are in good shape, with Jacob’s gaining £30m in retail sale value from its innovations last year but their marketers accept they need to get their biscuits into more homes.

Smart snacking

With that in mind, Go Ahead has relaunched to tie to a modern attitude to snacks, one that’s about making smart, conscious decisions instead of feeling guilty for snacking when dieting. That ethos is encapsulated by the brand’s ‘Snack Smart’ strapline, already part of an outdoor campaign and set to be the centre piece of a TV ad that will assure women that if they choose a “low calorie great tasting snack” then they are “snacking smart”. TV and outdoor form the cornerstone of the £2.5m campaign that’s also refreshed the biscuit brand’s packaging in line with the more contemporary stance.

No relaunch is complete without new products and Go Ahead will get two; ‘Cookie Bites’ in white chocolate and raspberry and chocolate and orange flavours in March alongside “Pud Bakes’ in cherry bakewell and lemon tart variants in May. The variants will try to take the brand from being a breakfast snack to mid afternoon and evening occasions, one of the main ways it plans to go from being in one in every five homes to one in every four.

The year of the digestive

While Go Ahead is getting more support than it ever has done this in 2015, United Biscuits marketing boss for its sweet biscuits Sarah Heynen is adamant 2016 will be the “year of the digestive”. And given McVitie’s predilection for showing furry creatures popping out from biscuit boxes, it’s no surprise that they are back and this time its kittens.

An ad will run later in the year, though rather than show the family orientated scenarios from previous ads, the furry felines will be shown coming out of a packet of Chocolate Digestives given to a student by his mum as he gets ready to settle in to his new room at university. Sound tracked to the Beverly Hills Cop theme, the ad is an unabashed attempt to win over younger people, a key target for Heynen this year.

It’s part of the reason why McVitie’s will launch Digestives Nibbles, bitesize snack versions of the biscuit that it hopes will be eaten by people mid-afternoon and in the evenings. Like Go Ahead, McVitie’s sees gains to be made by creating products for new consumption occasions and will plough £5m into ads that try to convince shoppers likewise.

Part of the investment has gone on an app, that when pointed at a Chocolate Digestives packet, gives shoppers their own virtual kitten. Similar to those that appear in its TV ad, the kitten will act as a Tamagotchi style pet, playing with people as and when they use the app.

Heynen said the app shows that digital is no longer an afterthought when planning the brand’s marketing. Some 15 per cent of the campaign’s outlay will go into digital initiatives, up from 5 per cent in 2014, with more going on YouTube pre roll as well as partnering with Buzzfeed.

“We believe its important to do a few things well,” explained Heynen. “Our strategy on McVitie’s is unashadmely the same year on year. It’s about adding a fresh twist to make sure that what we’re doing feels exciting and new.”

A cracking idea

On the savoury side of the United Biscuits portfolio, the Jacob’s range will also be relaunched in what will be a £15m attempt to emulate the success of the McVitie’s Sweet campaign later this month. Moving the brand into uncharted territory, spend increased by 20 per cent last year, which was about 25 per cent more than the year prior.

“We want to move on from being functional and education by talking about what we bake in our ads to talking about how our products make you feel,” explained United Biscuits marketing director for the savoury category Ted Linehan. Successful innovations Crispbreads, Crinklies and Cracker Crisps over the last two years have safeguarded the brand’s leadership of the category, he continued, though the emotional connection “just isn’t there” as it was with McVitie’s.

Making that bond with shoppers is how the marketer plans to go from being in more than 70 per cent of households to closer to McVitie’s 90 per cent. And that bond will be summed up through the “Cracking” concept, concocted to show people that when you eat a Jacob's biscuit it makes them feel so delightful that they want to break into song.

While the ad is still being shot, it will use famous pop songs to communicate that feeling to viewers. An example of what could be in store was shown at a press briefing yesterday evening (4 February), showing a woman eating a packet of Mini Cheddars, which bursts into a rendition of R-Kelly’s Ignition remix.

“In 2016 we’re going to make the Jacob’s brand famous,” Linehan. Similar to McViite’s, Linehan has also promised to up Jacob’s digital game for the campaign. A new Facebook page will launch as part of the push alongside a Twitter handle, while the biscuit has several unnamed media partnerships currently being signed off.

“We’re going to start getting serious about social media and digital,” he continued. “When I talk to my team I like to say our efforts to date have demonstrated to us what we ought not to do. This year is the year when hopefully we start doing what we should do. We’re clear that this isn’t just about using Facebook and Twitter because of the reach we’ll get out of that is somewhat limited. We want to make sure that we tap into other media properties and do exciting activities with them.”

Elsewhere the Trio brand is also set to make a comeback from next month, 13 years after being taken off shelves.

A recipe for future successes

It might be pushing for more biscuits in every household, but United Biscuits is mindful of the role it needs to play in tackling the obesity crisis. With the prospect of a sugar tax and tougher advertising rules for sugary products, the biscuit maker will unveil new reformulation targets on sugar reduction in the coming weeks. However, Heynen isn’t sure her adverts will be impacted too much by any potential changes because the focus is on “getting an emotional response” rather than “talking about what it does”.

“Having a biscuit a day as part of a balanced day is ok….it’s about taking a pragmatic view about a health nutrition agenda and also making product still taste fantastic,” she continued. “But the most important thing is that our products taste great. Let’s say we reduced the sugar by a percentage but the product didn’t taste great then you wouldn’t be given the consumer the treat experience that they’re after.


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