Gareth Turner, Head of Marketing at Weetabix, shares the challenges – and opportunities – of leading a heritage brand's marketing strategy in a fast-paced, competitive landscape.
Later this year, Weetabix celebrates its 90th birthday here in the UK. With a long-held identity and presence across nearly a century, the breakfast cereal and household name is about as ‘heritage’ as they come.
Our Brand Partnerships Manager, Craig Jackson, recently sat down with Gareth Turner, Head of Marketing at Weetabix, and soon-to-be Founder of marketing consultancy ‘Big Black Door,’ to discuss his experiences working as a ‘brand guardian’, the changes in the marketing landscape, and finding the right balance between innovation and heritage to stay front-of-mind when it comes to your morning meal.
When a company has decades worth of history behind it, how do you keep it relevant and fresh without losing such a well-established identity?
Gareth’s experience across numerous ‘heritage brands’ has taught him a few key lessons along the way.
“Most of the brands I’ve worked with have been well-established ‘heritage’ brands. The first was John Smith’s, which had retained the same brand positioning for 40 plus years.
I felt that it had lost its ‘no nonsense’ position, so we went back to basics on what that meant for the brand, which is where the final set of Peter Kay ads came from. It was at John Smith’s that I learned the trade and how to “do” marketing.
I then started working at Bulmers, another heritage brand, but we had to move on. We were losing business to both Magners (more heritage in the UK) and new fruit ciders such as Kopperberg and Rekorderlig.
As such, the brand needed to be repositioned and reimagined to open the growth opportunities in fruit cider and make it more current and modern. We took the best bits of “100 plus years of cider making knowhow”, and moved it on to enable us to introduce more people to that brand.”
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“At Weetabix, you have a brand that is 90 years old this year.
There is more choice for breakfast now than there would have been back in 1932, so you must keep innovating and bringing new projects to market in a way that is exciting for today's audience, but is also true to the heritage and credentials of your brand.
Take Weetabix melts for example. It’s a Weetabix biscuit on the outside with a chocolate centre, but still has some pretty good health credentials. This is a new product that will encourage people to re-engage with the brand.”
“Three years ago, Weetabix were only advertising on TV along with a little bit of social media. In the last two years, we’ve layered on additional media channels, which has improved our salience.
We nudged our social media content to be braver alongside our other marketing to improve our relevance. Our collaboration with Heinz for the ‘Beanz on Bix’ campaign was a direct result of us trying to be bolder and this "layering" approach to media channels.”
For marketers working within heritage brands, the weight of a long-held identity and brand can lead to inflexibility. But, in a market as competitive as FMCG, playing it ‘safe’ isn’t always an option.
We asked Gareth to share his approach to managing risk as a brand guardian – the good, the bad and the hairy.
“We try to encourage bravery in our marketing by asking 'what's the worst that can happen?'
If you manage any idea in the right way, maintain the quality of your product and don't undermine your prowess as a business, the worst thing that can happen is that someone won't like it.”
So, what are the downsides of taking risks as a brand guardian?
“Of course, there have been a few things that I wish I hadn’t done.
When I was at Arla, we launched a protein-enriched, chocolate flavoured milk brand called Wing-Co. On its packaging, we used the line “the dairy drink for men with added man.”
As part of its launch, we created a coat from the cuttings of men’s hair swept from a barber’s floor. The idea was that you could get ‘added man’ from a coat made from men, and it was disgusting. I wouldn’t do that one again.
In that situation, it wasn’t bold or brave - it was reckless.”
“For Weetabix, we can’t compare ourselves to ‘riskier’ brands such as Paddy Power or Pot Noodle.
Example - our social media agency, Frank, asked us to place ourselves on a ‘bold-o-meter’ between 0 and 10 with 10 being the boldest you can be.
We thought we were a 6 or 7. They told us we were actually about a 4.
We don’t need to be a 10 – but to get to the 6 or 7, we’re slowly nudging around this ‘bold-o-meter’ to have a bit more of a point of view, to be spikier and funnier about things.
This is one way to get your relevance up and make yourself front-of-mind when people are thinking about breakfast.”
The hair coat might have allowed Wing-Co to stand out from the competition, but it was for all the wrong reasons.
When it comes to standing out as a heritage brand, what are the lessons learned?
“The challenge we had with the ‘hair coat,’ is that it was for a brand launch. There was no brand to be a ‘guardian’ of.
But, if you look at John Smith’s, Weetabix or Lurpak, where there is already a brand, there are a series of questions to ask yourself to ensure you’re staying true to the brand whilst trying to stand out.”
“Firstly, establish what the big idea is around the campaign.
The second thing is ensuring the execution delivers against that ‘big idea.’
At Weetabix, we call it the ‘Weetabix advantage.’ This is the idea that when you’re feeling well-nourished, it sets you up for a better day.”
“This idea can be seen in our recent ads, with a girl who brings a submarine ashore, the giant running away after realising Jack has had his Weetabix, and the wolf who is now able to blow down the brick house in our re-imagined fairy tale.
In these examples, there is a well-established campaign idea that we build on.”
“When being presented with script ideas for ads, you must ask if it’s delivering against that idea and remains on brand.
If a Paddy Power script was presented to Weetabix, for example, it might be very funny, but if it isn't "on brand" or doesn’t deliver our campaign idea, then it’s no good for us.”
We recently featured Weetabix’s sister product, Oatibix, in our ‘most impactful campaigns of the month’ roundup.
In it, the ‘Weetabix advantage’ is well visualised, demonstrated by a boy who is forced to walk the plank by some pirates (we won’t spoil what happens, check it out here.)
Many of the campaigns featured have been created with the help of agency support.
We asked Gareth for his best advice for better brand-agency relationships.
“I’m a collaborative person. I like to get as many opinions as possible, and then trust somehow that a solution will bubble up. So, I’d like to think that I’ve always had this approach with my agency partners.
I also use something that I call a ‘bravery pot’. This is where a percentage of our annual budget is set aside for agencies to pitch the core plan but also do something a bit more, and it has spawned some great ideas for us in recent years.”
“I had a great all-agency team at Bulmers. We had some world-class agencies on that roster, but I wasn't clear enough in my direction. In a simplified manner, I said ‘here’s the total budget available to you, here’s my objective and I want an integrated plan back from you that meets the budget.’ I didn’t break it down.
That was a tough year because it wasn’t as collaborative as I wanted. Everyone was fighting for every penny because I didn’t give clarity in the brief.
The year after, we kept the same agency group and I wanted the same integrated response, but I clearly defined everyone’s boundaries and budgets. Ironically, this made it much more collaborative because each agency's scope of work was protected.”
“You must give some boundaries, but in a leadership position, it’s difficult to have the time to work individually with all the agencies.
In an integrated response, it’s important to be clear on who the lead agency is, and what your expectations of them are. It’s then the accountability of them to pull everyone together.
One year, there was a period of time when we didn’t have a lead agency. I saw just how much they were doing in the background. I had underestimated all the cajoling and encouragement they were doing to bring it all together.”
If an agency is looking to stand out and catch the attention of in-house marketers at a heritage brand, Gareth’s advice is one we have seen across the board here at GO! - it’s all about the chemistry.
“Chemistry. I want to know that I could enjoy working with them.
Are they the right cultural fit for my business?
"I’ve been in processes before where I wanted to shortlist an agency, but they were open about not being right for the business. While I was disappointed at the time, they prevented what was inevitably going to be a difficult relationship. I respect that and am on friendly terms with them still. We just weren't right for each other at that moment.”
“You want to know if they understand your business, know your sector, and have a good understanding of your challenges.
There was an example when I was at Bulmers where an agency heard our brief and wrote to us with what they thought our challenges were. They basically summarised everything I was wrestling at the time, so they got themselves on the shortlist.
I don’t want a ‘yes’ person. I want an agency that are experts in what they do. One who’s going to challenge my thinking.”
“Finally, I don’t just want to see the founders and the owners. I want to see the people that are going to be working with me. In any pitch process that I’ve run, this has been stipulated in the briefing document.”
“I’ll always give the incumbent a fair crack of the whip, but if I get let down, I reserve the right to look for someone else to fill that spot. This will never happen without the incumbent knowing about it. I will tell them that I need fresh thinking.
I would rather do this with an incumbent because I don’t have to onboard someone new who doesn’t know my business. This is different if a new channel opens to us. At this point, expertise is needed that current agency partners might not have.”
To round off the interview, Craig asked Gareth what makes a great agency partner.
“The number one reason for positive relationships is a mutual understanding of everyone’s business.”
Gareth is a Global FMCG Marketing and commercial leader experienced in developing brands, individuals and teams. Gareth recently announced his departure from Weetabix to set up his own marketing consultancy ‘Big Black Door.’ We wish Gareth the best of luck in this new adventure.
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