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Branston deal a reminder of what a pickle Premier Foods has got itself into

October 31, 2012

Old food brands don’t die, they just get traded away. The latest to fall under the auctioneer’s hammer is Branston – sweet pickle, but also ketchup, mayonnaise and salad cream – which has been knocked down to Japanese relishes specialist Mizkan for £92.5m. It’s the second deal Premier Foods has done with Mizkan. Earlier this year, Premier sold its Haywards pickles business and Sarson’s vinegar brand to the privately-owned Japanese company for £41m.

Not so long ago, Premier was being billed as Britain’s biggest (indigenous) food company. That reputation has long gone, as the company struggles to placate an increasingly disenchanted City with a seemingly endless series of disposals aimed at tackling massive over-leverage (it borrowed far too much in the good years) and a burgeoning pension liability.

The finance boys, not to mention Premier’s new(ish) broom chief executive Michael Clarke (formerly Kraft Food Euro chief), are so chuffed at being ahead of schedule in reducing the debt mountain that they seem to have forgotten what the company is supposed to be about.

These days, the only media ripple Premier manages to make is when it announces yet another fire-sale. Last December it was Brookes Avana, its loss-making chilled food business, sold for £30m. Earlier in 2011, it canning business went to Princes (now part of Mitsubishi) for £182m, and before that, the meat-free business – commonly known as Quorn – for £205m.

In fact, so many brands have disappeared from the portfolio in the past few years that people must wonder what – if anything apart from trying to make money – the Premier umbrella brand stands for these days. Remember Gale’s Honey? Robertson’s Jam? Hartley’s? Chiver’s? Typhoo Tea? All once UK household names – now long since divested.

And more disposals are on the way. Bird’s Custard, for example. And even – if the price is right – the Premier bread business; that’s Hovis to you and me. Which, if I remember rightly, was the jewel in the crown when Premier acquired the old Ranks Hovis McDougall business back in 2007.

The talk in the boardroom is of scaling back to the unassailable fortress of Premier’s so-called “Power Brands”, of which Hovis is currently one (yes, that unassailable). The others are Mr Kipling, Ambrosia, Sharwood’s, Loyd Grossman, Oxo, Bisto, and Batchelors.

To the untutored eye, there’s nothing very “unassailable” about any of these, either. The Loyd Grossman business is unlikely to much outlive the celebrity of its founder. As for Bisto, Batchelors, Mr Kipling and Ambrosia, they are in – or moving towards – the brand museum category: famous items in the pantry a generation ago, but now confined to a dubious ranking on the health traffic light scheme featuring in your local supermarket.

Unilever and the likes of Néstlé, Kraft, Campbell’s and RHM saw the dismal future awaiting such brands long ago, which is why they first cut off marketing support and then disposed of them. Scavenging such brands may have made sense while borrowing costs were no object; and while the supermarkets were prepared to offer them a reasonable amount of shelf space. But they aren’t any more.

For these reasons, a big question mark hangs over Premier, its “Power Brands”, and the continuing viability of its business model.

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Hugh Curly-Whirly’s TV campaign single-handedly triples Sainsbury’s sales of Colin

January 18, 2011

Oh, the awesome power of celebrity endorsement, especially when it is attached to a good cause. Our local fish-lady (stockist, not mermaid) reckons that Hugh Curly-Whirly, as she insists on calling the eminent TV chef, is now revered as a latter-day saint by fisherman at the Cinque Port of Hythe.

Fearnley-Whittingstall recently devised and fronted Channel 4’s three-parter Fish Fight campaign, which appears to have had a galvanic impact on national fish-consumption.

Curly-Whirly’s purpose was to highlight our over-dependence on certain edible fish, namely cod, tuna and salmon. That and the inanity of current EU regulations which, in seeking to inhibit over-fishing, actively promote “discards” (dead and dying fish thrown back into the sea) on a biblical scale – playing no small part in the destruction of our marine fishing industry while they’re at it.

The net result (if you’ll forgive the pun) has been shoals of consumers shimmying around all our best known supermarkets, in a desperate effort to buy up every available “alternative” fish and seafood species. Words rarely heard outside angling circles, such as “coley”, “whiting” and “dab”, have now become the common currency of over-the-counter exchanges with baffled in-store fishmongers.

What Sainsbury’s persists in calling “colin” (that’s pollack to you, with a French accent) is now going out of its doors three times faster than last week, when the programmes were aired. And Tesco, the country’s biggest fish retailer, claims that sales of fresh sardines, coley, brown crab, sprats and whiting have grown between 25% and 45% over the same period.

Mind you, one of the things you won’t hear Tesco trumpeting is sales of its tuna. The saintly Hugh used one of his programmes to excoriate the supermarket’s antediluvian attitude towards netting its own-brand stuff. Whereupon – Hey Presto! – Tesco instantly dropped its attachment to the wasteful but cut-price “purse seining” technique of slaughtering millions of innocent fish. It was a move cynical enough to leave Princes stranded at the bottom of the tuna eco-league table but, in the event, did not elevate Tesco further than fifth place.

So, nice one Mr Curly-Whirly. Just a single piece of advice from our local fish-lady and the good fishermen of Hythe, if I may. Before you direct consumers on an indiscriminate trawl for every available alternative edible fish species, do you think you could do something to educate them on their seasonal availability? All this demand at once – it’s simply unsustainable.


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