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Sweet success of a ‘passing fad’
As Rowntree prepares to mark its 150th anniversary this weekend, MAXINE GORDON looks at the role of advertising in making the likes of KitKat, Smarties and Aero household names.
JOSEPH Rowntree rarely put a foot wrong, but on one subject it appears he was out of step. “He thought advertising was a passing fad,” says Alex Hutchinson, who looks after the Rowntree archive at Nestle HQ in York.
“He thought advertising was all about trying to sell something to people that they didn’t want. He believed in making the right product and in making products of the highest quality.”
Yet by the 1930s Rowntree was a trailblazer, appointing George Harris as its first marketing director.
“George was the father of modern marketing,” says Alex. “He was the first person to do full-scale market research on products. He created personalities around products and created strong identities.”
It’s a science the company still follows today, says Alex. “When we create a new product, we want to know what the consumer wants from us and what the consumer wants to buy.”
To mark the company’s 150th anniversary on July 1, Alex has released a series of images from the archive showing how Rowntree advertised its products through the decades.
It’s as much a history lesson as a pictorial one, showing how events such as the Second World War affected Rowntree’s business.
Take the Aero advert from 1951: this shows a portrait of a women with an unwrapped Aero bar beneath. Aero was launched in 1935, but wasn’t produced during the war years because of the difficulty in obtaining milk and the rationing of chocolate.
When it returned in 1950, the marketers wanted to make an impact. Alex explains: “It was a complete departure from the stylised cartoon posters of war time. We wanted to do something different so hired famous portrait artists of the day to do these portraits.”
George Harris’s blueprint for giving a brand a personality is shown in the Smarties’ adverts from the 1950s.
First, we have a colourful drawing of a female dancing with a stream of bright-coloured Smarties floating through the air.
By the 1960s, a rainbow river of Smarties was still being used in the advertising campaign, but this time as part of a child’s drawing. The child was ‘Lulu’, a “brand mascot”, explains Alex. Lulu also featured in an accompanying TV ad campaign.
The brand was king, and Rowntree was canny in protecting its bestsellers, particularly KitKat Chocolate Crisp (as it was called then). Unable to get milk supplies during the Second World War to make its milk chocolate, in 1941 Rowntree produced a plain chocolate KitKat.
But the company was careful to market it as a different product; the usual red wrapper was switched to blue and it came with a clear warning to consumers: “Because no milk can be obtained for chocolate manufacture, the Chocolate Crisp you knew in peace time can no longer be made. KitKat is the nearest possible product at the present time.”
But Rowntree’s withdrew the alternative KitKat almost as quickly as it was launched. “They were worried consumers might try it and think we had changed the recipe and would not buy it again,” says Alex.
To celebrate the landmark anniversary, Nestle has teamed up with Chocolate, the new visitor attraction at Kings’ Square, where for the whole of July, staff will be making treats from original, long-lost recipes from the Rowntree’s archive.
Alex said: “I’ve been doing lots of detective work and gone through some of our oldest confectionery recipe books and come up with recipes as close as possible to the ones made by Rowntree. I’ve also found some of our oldest chocolate moulds.”
Surely Joseph Rowntree would approve.