Talking the Biscuit

Andy Marino speaks with Simon Browne, MD of Burton’s and biscuit baron extraordinaire – and learns of important new Wagon Wheels news among many other tasty crumbs of information

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Simon Browne

There used to be a joke, among the people who worked there, that the BBC actually stood for the Broken Biscuit Company – a comfortable riff on a national institution that sat well alongside the cosy “Auntie Beeb” nickname.

In reality, I think “BBC” best refers to Burton’s Biscuit Company, a firm that makes some of the UK’s most favourite biscuits, notably Jammie Dodgers, Wagon Wheels and Maryland Cookies among others.

But not only that. Burton’s was also around first and as such is even more a national institution than the broadcasting corporation, (the founder,George Burton, was born in 1829);and Burton’s has  given the public at least as much pleasure and uplift over the years.

“When you go out and meet people and they ask what you do, the first thing you start talking about is Dodgers or Wagon Wheels. There is just such love for the product that it transcends anything else,” Simone Browne, Burton’s MD, tells me, as he describes what have to be some of the most bullet-proof brands around.

I am meeting up with him to talk particularly about how Burton’s is bringing to market some exciting and innovative NPDs, again renewing Jammie Dodgers, which still sell more with each passing year, and transforming existing products into new forms – such as the “minis” that do so well with the healthier and controlled-portion approach that Burton’s (like most of its competitors) is driving ahead with. And how does orange-flavour Wagon Wheels sound?

In a sense these are prefect times for change – in products, strategy, marketing, in fact in all sorts of areas – because of the great big elephant in the room that is trampling on all our best-laid plans: the coronavirus pandemic.

The cards fall, scattered where they lay thanks to the virus, and the hand dealt by fate can be lethal, lucky or plain interesting. “We didn’t know whether we were going to close for a period of time or not, or whether there would be cash-flow. All those challenges,” Simon says, shaking his head.

Burton’s appears to have had a pretty good pandemic, notwithstanding the obvious difficulties brought by the lockdown, supply chain stresses and social distancing. The biscuit sector generally was already in good health. The stay-in, treat-yourself months of the lockdown have additionally proven good for dunking.

A biscuit love affair

The British have always loved biscuits almost more than life itself, and of course they go together with tea, the national drink, like a horse and carriage. In fact, we are the second largest consumer in the world, with biscuits eaten over three times a week. Last year category sales reached a record £2.7 billion and were bought by 99 per cent of all households, which is a polite way of saying all households.

Sweet biscuits, where Burton’s is outstanding, naturally led the way in 2019, with most (£2.2billion) of the total sales and growth. Biscuits remain the second largest snacking category at 23 per cent value share of a total £13 billion annually, and are a vital component of the Convenience basket, where snacks account for a significant proportion of the spend in the impulse channel.

Then along came 2020. “I think it’s probably been the most challenging period in my career,” says Simon. “Nobody quite knew what to do. There are two sides to it, one from the commercial point of view and the other the human one. Are we making the right decisions at the right time?”

He’s been going into the office during the lockdown. Food companies have had to keep going so they have become pioneers in sorting out how to deal with the restrictions involved in staying safe.

“We set ourselves three objectives as the pandemic developed,” he says. “One was to make sure our employees were safe. The second was business continuity, and third was to make sure we still had a business when we came out of it, for the long-term and for all of the families that rely on us: we’ve got about 2000 employees.”

It wasn’t plain sailing. Burton’s is both a national and a regional company, headquartered in St Albans, and with factories not just in England but in Wales and Scotland as well. This multiplied the myriad new regulations that had to be complied with. Nobody even knew what social distancing was on 17 March this year, recalls Simon, and then suddenly the unions had to be negotiated with, not to mention the bureaucrats.

“We had to work it out and there was a lot of anxiety, a lot of challenges with the devolved governments giving mixed messages: stay at home, key-workers – we had all of this, and that’s why from a personal point of view it was always making sure that your true north was that your employees were safe,” he says.

“But we got through that. Every Thursday evening when there was the clapping we donated an hour of factory production time to charitable causes. We said to any employee that wanted to take product home that they should give it to a charity or a loved one that can’t get out.”

Production never stalled, but the consequences of the virus and the changes wrought by it in the market in terms of consumer behaviour meant that were unavoidable mismatches in demand and supply.

“One example: Maryland Minis, which is a great on-the-go product, after-school, lunchboxes, if you’ve been swimming you’d give your child, and so on. It’s a 100-calorie portion-control.” It’s also, says Simon, his personal favourite of all Burton’s products. (“If I have a coffee, it’s 100 calories, six biscuits. If you have a big packet of biscuits, you have a tendency to keep going – so it has worked really very well for us, Maryland Minis and has grown to be the biggest seller of its type.”).

But the schools were shut and the usual customers, office workers and commuters, suddenly were no longer on the go: “The demand for Maryland Minis reduced by about 30 per cent overnight.”

There was a real change – an illuminating, educating change in behaviour and demand; and faster, probably, than anything ever seen before.

“When you look at the data, all the health bars that were really kicking it over the last four or five years are down 30 per cent,” says Simon. “It’s really those occasions: consumer habits have changed hugely. We saw uplift of 30 per cent during the panic-buying. The category over those twelve weeks was probably up about eight per cent in the end when I looked at the data yesterday, and its flat over the last three months, so the demand is what the demand was last year,” he concludes.

But most interesting was the upset in occasions and pack sizes caused by the lockdown.

“People are still buying the same amount of biscuits, just different ones,” he says. “We saw consumers move into the big packs of digestives, chocolate digestives, that they could consume at home with their families.”

This might sound good but it is actually a problem. “Those really on-the-go, grab snacks, which would bring in a lot of value for the retailer – those occasions have now gone,” Simon says,“and there is value going out of the category even while there is a lot of volume going into it.”

A lot of sales but not a lot of margin: “When you get down to what we in the industry call ‘round and brown’, it is very commoditized and very low value,” he explains. “You can buy a packet of custard creams for 30 pence in Aldi, as an example. It’s great value for the consumer but a bit of a challenge for the retailer, especially if you are an independent in the impulse channel.”

Branded or private label?

The better profits are clearly on branded biscuits, not generic types. Burtons produces both in order to make best use of its industrial capacity, and this means it can play both sides of the street –a bit like a currency hedge, but in biscuits.

“We have three mega-factories, mega-bakeries, making millions of biscuits per year, and the more we can put through them the more we can make sure we are efficient, competitive, and we can pass that onto the consumer,” he says.

Luckily, the reason which leads Burton’s to take private label contracts is the same one that means sales in convenience of branded biscuits are holding up so well. “It’s a very different need of a shopper who’s buying branded to one who is buying private label,” Simon says. “We are the biggest private label manufacturer of cookies in the UK and we also have the Maryland brand. You might ask if we are going up one against the other, but it’s a different need and a different buyer.”

He explains that private label and branded can co-exist and need not be cannibalistic of one another in sales terms. “What we have found with our retail partners is that if we can go with one offer and be the expert in the biscuits category, then rather than just promoting our brand, we can look a bit more independently at the total biscuits opportunity. We can provide them with a private label range – rich tea, digestive, chocolate digestive – but we can provide them with a branded range as well.It’s the same thing between sweet biscuits and savoury biscuits, because we can offer both.”

It’s a combination that has seen Burton’s through the past few months despite being dealt some unlucky cards – as Simon points out, the recent acquisition of Scottish shortbread-maker Paterson Arran came just as the food-service industry screeched to a halt. Paterson mostly supplied restaurants and hotels. “Our great business we had with food-service disappeared overnight,” says Simon.

But on the other hand Paterson is an excellent firm now in a position to dominate the domestic shortbread market (and maybe challenge Walkers shortbread internationally), and it even came with a beautiful island jam-manufactory that can be used for artisan Jammie Dodger fillings!

Pretty jammy

Speaking of Jammie Dodgers, it is the endless reformulation of flavours and promotions of the brand that appear to be contributing much to the biscuits phenomenal rise and rise. The incarnations of the Jammie Dodger are great audience-pleasers and Simon says that the “unicorn” Jammie Dodger remains the most successful version: “We are just keeping pace with the trend for unicorns and trying to work out what the next ‘unicorn’ is going to be, whether it’s flamingos or narwhals or llamas – I’m not quite sure!” he laughs.

“The reason I think we are getting the growth through is that we continue to innovate – we have these core iconic products but we continue to innovate – and bring news to the category.”

Then there’s the fact that Jammie Dodgers have been around for so long. On the one hand it means, as Simon has said, that the brand should be careful not to take itself too seriously – the institutional danger of being a heritage name and going out of date with new customers. “Jammie Dodgers was voted as the second most iconic biscuit in the UK in a poll on TV last year, and we don’t always celebrate that. Jammie Dodgers should be the real, fun, family get-together biscuit where we celebrate with a jammy sense of fun,” he emphasises.

On the other hand, Simon also reveals that sales are up among middle-aged men who got to know the biscuit in their childhood and are now rediscovering it.“You think it is all these kids who are eating them but it’s actually not,” he laughs.“It’s 45-50 year-old men whose wives are buying them and the men are eating them. There’s fewer children than adults eating them.”

So old can be good then? I ask, hopefully.

“We have been producing Jammie Dodgers for many, many years and we have been growing double-digit sales figures,” says Simon. “We’ve updated all of the packaging, the look and feel of it, and just to give it a sense of fun. It’s a biscuit after all, and it can’t take itself too seriously. It’s got to celebrate the fact that it’s got its heart in the middle.”

They have almost been too successful: “We’ve run out of capacity for Jammie Dodgers,” warns Simon. “There’s actually a shortage of Jammie Dodgers in the UK at the moment because we just cannot keep pace with demand.” Luckily a new factory in Edinburgh is coming on line this month, which should take up the shortfall.

Wagon Wheels

The other spoke in the Burton’s wheel is of course Wagon Wheels – always British, never American, funnily enough. And exactly the same size now as when they were launched back in 1948 at the British Food Fair at Olympia – despite what it says on the internet.

“The office next door to me here has one of the original Wagon Wheels encased in a Perspex plaque about so big, from 1965 or something, and says “Ten Million Wagon Wheels Made,” says Simon. “I keep getting it out to prove to people that Wagon Wheels have not changed size. It has not changed at all.”

As yet another Burton’s biscuit that carries on growing each year, so to speak (“Probably 15 per cent in the UK, believe it or not”), Wagon Wheels is now even being launched as a cookie in Russia – because they don’t know the Maryland brand over there.

For a long time Burton’s held the licence to produce Cadbury’s biscuits but sold it back to Mondelēz three years ago.

“Cadbury was a big, big brand that always got you in front of retailers,” says Simon.“But we doubled down on our brands, got Maryland back on TV; we struck up a partnership with Mars Biscuits as well, so we are developing and selling Mars Biscuits, and have just recently launched a Malteser biscuit, which has been the biggest biscuit launch in the last 12 months and which is really working well for us.”

As well as Mars, Burton’s now have the Marmite licence as well. Innovation is coming thick and fast and crunchy: “Disruptive is the word I constantly use back at base. I want us to be a disruptive biscuit brand, and that’s looking at shopper insights, looking at consumer insights, and working as a partner with the retailers on what we can do to really delight the consumer with what we produce.”

A healthier future

Jammie Dodgers are also immune to the ongoing health trend that gave us protein bars, but which has not much adversely affected biscuits–so that the new young generation can still enjoy them.

“I think that Jammie Dodgers are a relatively permissible snack,” reasons Simon. “Everything has got to be in moderation, but they are not like chocolate where you have that real guilt about it.”

To help this along, the option of the minis – as with Maryland Cookies – was introduced, and as lockdown lifts and people start to buzz around again, sales are expected to go back up.

“Ultimately it’s a very affordable treat with multiple occasions. Belvita created the breakfast occasion to eat biscuits that didn’t used to exist. You’ve got mid-morning, you’ve got lunchbreak, afternoon, after-sport, after-school with the children, and then that treat when you’re watching TV in the evening,” he says. “There’s just so many occasions where it’s just not the same as chocolate or cakes, when it’s probably one occasion really you are going to use.”

It reminds me of the Simpsons episode when Homer won a prize for inventing a new meal between breakfast and brunch.

But the health issue is serious, and is regarded seriously. “We are taking responsibility for healthy snacking and we’ve made a pledge that all of our kids’ brands will be under 100 calories a bag,” says Simon.“We do also have a programme, not announced yet, that we are going to further take things out of the product, whether it be sugar or calories. We have reduced the sugar in our products over the last four years by 20 per cent.”

With the lifting of lockdown at last came the opportunity for kids to run around outside: “We decided that we wanted to double down and try to get kids moving again,so we launched – and my inspiration came from my six and eight year-olds who are obsessed by their Fitbits – our Win a Fitbit competition,” Simon explains.

“It’s not just a Fitbit but access to all of these healthy activities and events that you can go to with the Minis Get Active, to get kids out there with the Fitbits on their arms so they can challenge each other on the number of steps they’ve got.And it really works, and sticking with Public Health England of two snacks for children with each no more than 100 calories. We embrace that and we were one of the first.”

This idea of combining a snack treat for kids with the activity needed to keep it balanced as part of growth and nutrition is what Simon sees as the way forward, rather than strictures and preaching – which is frankly a breath of fresh air.

“My kids are regularly doing 30k steps a day,” he says with obvious pride. “We see this as a long-term platform and we will continue to develop Minis and make sure that we are leading the way with the most permissible children’s snacking. Because they don’t want to eat broccoli all the time and they do need that bit of energy – and I think Maryland Minis is as good as any.”

Best of British

Going into Scotland (where Burton’s over-sells), already manufacturing in Wales, and buying the Dorset-based artisanal Thomas Fudge brand, whose legendary Florentines are selling like hot cakes, is testament to the fact that Burton’s is committed to regional investment, and with good reason: increased sales and loyalty are driven by being local.

“Absolutely,” agrees Simon. “What we’ve done is a bit of a test – and this is going back to the real old school in that we’ve put in a regional sales manager. It was many years ago you would have regional sales managers, but we’ve put one into Scotland just to test and learn a little bit about how to adapt our offer to the region: Scotland is very different to England in many ways in consumer tastes”

Apparently, the better you know a region, the more accurately you can cater to its consumer profile and increase sales. Who would have guessed? Perhaps another sign that living locally can be better than thinking globally, and a way for commerce to take advantage of pandemic effects.

“We have three sites up in Scotland, and if we are selling up in Scotland then we have to embrace that heritage,” Simon explains. “There is an adage that the Scots do like to buy from the Scots, just as the Irish do the Irish. And we are embracing that just as we are down in Dorset and the south-west, where we over-index with our Thomas Fudge’s brands. It’s because of the locality.”

Bringing it all back home

I wonder aloud what brought Browne to Burton’s. He is a high-flying international corporate supply-tech guy who spent three years in the USA. Now he is riding shotgun for Wagon Wheels – soon to be out in new orange flavour I hasten to add (can’t wait).

“From a personal point of view I have been in the likes of Cadbury-Kraft and Reckitt Benckiser, which are very different businesses,” he says, “but just the opportunity here, to join and have that breadth of looking after sales, marketing, product development, manufacturing – it just gives you so much opportunity.”

It’s a smaller form than a multinational, but it feels bigger because you’re not just a cog?

“Where I feel Burton’s is well-positioned versus many other biscuit manufacturers is that we can be very agile. The opportunity is there to continue to grow. We had consumer sessions last night trying to understand with them what a Galaxy biscuit might look like. We are constantly working with our retailers on what are they hearing, what are the pack sizes we might need.”

It sounds like more living locally – is the Convenience sector a big factor in Burton’s plans?

“We have recently looked at our cash-and-carry packs and worked with the retailers on those to try and make sure we are hitting some key price points,” replies Simon, “and making sure we are communicating on-pack what is in it for the retailer and what’s their reason to pick us up versus somebody else.

“We are also trying to create that pull through the impulse channel, with how we can support it. With our PMP strategy we want to make sure that we are bringing value to shoppers coming into the impulse channel.”

Despite all the recent problems, I have rarely heard anybody so full of enthusiasm for his products than Simon Browne. “It is literally my dream job,” he muses. “I love everything about it and I’m not just saying that. Just because it’s so diverse and I have worked in a lot of different categories from condoms to toilet cleaners – and I am a lot more passionate about biscuits than toothpaste. It’s a great category to work in.”