Mark Ritson
Mark Ritson
A view from Mark Ritson

Mark Ritson on Branding: Premier gets out of a jam

The demise of Robertson's may have upset some, but there is no longer any room for sentiment

James Robertson launched his family jam business in 1864, after his wife, Marion, began making marmalade at their local shop in Paisley. Jams and mincemeat followed, and Robertson's became the leading brand of British preserves for most of the 20th century. Premier Foods acquired the Robertson's brand last year when it swallowed up RHM. This week Premier announced its new strategy for its prized jam acquisition in 2009 - kill it. Quick.

By the end of next year, Robertson's will have disappeared forever from British tables. Cue an avalanche of media stories about the fall of another great British institution, letters to the Daily Mail about the end of society as we know it, and a long line of generic brand consultants, shaking their heads and offering insight on where it all went wrong and how the brand could – and should – have been saved.

Don Williams, chief executive of brand ID consultants Pi Global, was especially emotional, telling The Grocer, 'The decline of Robertson's has been a particularly sad affair. This once-great, iconic British brand has, in my view, been systematically dismantled.'

You need a new dance, Don - the music has changed. Ten years ago, the Robertson's story might have been one of strategic error, but the world of branding is changing faster than many industry experts can keep up with.

Consider the dire straits companies such as Premier Foods find themselves in. The once-mighty food group may be only months away from a financial melt-down. How would you feel if you owed 10 times more than you were worth and the bank was ringing you to come in for a chat? That's the dilemma for Premier, which has a market capitalisation of £150m and debts of more than £1.6bn. Its priority is to reduce its debt and streamline its business before its bankers shut it down. Killing brands, particularly when your portfolio includes similar, stronger offerings, such as Hartley's Jam, makes more sense than trying to maintain double the marketing and production costs.

Also, consider the market. Yes, Robertson's is the number-three brand in a category led by Hartley's. If this were 1995, we would run both brands and have a fantastic business. But it's 2008 and the maxim of  'don't be caught in the middle' applies to jam, as much as other recession-ravaged categories.

On top are the super-premium jams such as Bonne Maman and Tiptree, both of which have enjoyed double-digit annual growth for years. Below are the private-label jams that have grown from nothing to now account for a third of the total value of the category. Consumers are either clinging to life's little luxuries and trading up, or saving a few valuable pence and trading down. Either way, they are deserting the middle ground. Time to kill the weaker brand, and focus Premier's limited resources on the stronger leader brand.

Marketers must wake up and smell the napalm. The world of brand strategy has changed completely in the past six months, but many of you are still living in 2007, when we launched brands, marketing budgets were full and companies had seemingly unlimited sums of money. All that is gone, and not coming back any time soon.

Anyone who even suggests launching a new brand, especially in retail, in 2009 should be taken out into the car park and 'retrenched'. Killing is the new creating. The only way to build value in the year ahead is to destroy weak brands. Marketers must now put down their paintbrushes and learn to love the knife. Throw away the little Buddha statue on your office PC, and put up a poster of the great god Shiva!

Mark Ritson is an associate professor of marketing, and consultant to some of the world's leading brands

30 seconds on...jam, gravy and the great god Shiva

  • 'Jam' is an Arabic word meaning 'close packed' or 'all together'. Jam has held a central place in British cooking since the earliest records. In 15th-century cookery journals such as A Book of Cookrye - a sort of Jamie Oliver of its time - the medieval prose refers at one point to a 'drie marmalade of peaches'.
  • As well as owning both the Robertson's and Hartley's brands, Premier Foods also manufactures Rose's Marmalades and jam under the Weight Watchers label. The company is also a major producer of private-label jams in the UK.
  • Next up on the Premier chopping block could be OXO, sales of which have declined significantly. The addition of market leader Bisto, which has six times the sales of OXO, to Premier's portfolio could spell the end of the road for the iconic brand.
  • The god Shiva is known as the 'destroyer of the world'. In Hindu religion, he is seen as a force for death, but also for shedding old habits and clearing the way for a rebirth.