On October 13th 2016, Marmite-gate came to a head. The much loved (or hated) yeast extract forced a retail giant to accept its post-Brexit price hike following a frosty 24 hour standoff.
OK, so it’s hardly a David versus Goliath story when Unilever, one of the world’s largest consumer-goods suppliers, knocks heads with Tesco, Britain’s biggest supermarket chain.
Yet if there’s anything this modern day parable teaches us, it’s that Marmite waged their war knowing full well they had something Tesco could not compete with - brand loyalty.
This small jar of brown spread has an unwavering following. In Britain, it rubs shoulders with the world’s biggest names when it comes to brand loyalty (a 2013 poll by M&C Saatchi Group ranked it the fifth most desirable British brand). Besides the distinctive taste, how did Marmite come to command such devotion?
Innovative: heritage but modern
Marmite was, in essence, a fluke. It was invented by the German scientist Justus Liebig, who discovered that brewer's yeast, a by-product of beer making, could be concentrated and eaten.
Dating back to 1902, Marmite is one of those kitchen cupboard staples that we have all grown up with. It was included in soldiers’ ration packs during the First and Second World Wars, and the brand is not averse to evoking those oh-so-British notions of comfort, stability and tradition. The iconic brown glass jar, an institution in itself, is the perfect example of this, with its red, yellow and white label staying true to the Edwardian original.
Yet Marmite cannot be accused of resting on its laurels. From playful microsites such as the Ministry of Marmite to a Marmite app that helps you track your spread usage, the brand uses new media as a means to engage its audience and build on the comic tone of voice for which it’s renowned.
Case in point. Back in 2010, Marmite took to Facebook, to spread the word about the launch of “the world’s first savoury cereal bar”. The brand used targeted ads (still in their infancy at the time) to offer a free sample to the product’s demographic of mums and young adults aged 16 to 44 years old. Within two weeks the campaign had generated 21.5 million impressions, caused a 10% increase in the number of people connected to the Facebook page and saw 33,000 samples delivered to the target audience.
How do you get around the fact that your product tends to polarize opinion?
In Marmite’s case you make it a key selling point. Launched in 1996, the ‘you either love it or hate it’ campaign was a masterstroke in marketing. It draws attention to what many would deem a shortcoming of the brand, and plays it to their advantage.
The slogan has become a part of the British lexicon: the media regularly cite the ‘Marmite effect’ to evoke a sense of division on a subject, whether it be politicians or last night’s television, creating a perpetual cycle of publicity. Viral marketing, years before we knew what ‘viral marketing’ meant.
Not only is the line typically British, with its tongue in cheek sense of humour, it also safeguards the brand from customer complaints regarding taste - or even their later marketing. Take their ‘End Marmite neglect’ campaign, which controversially saw the brand parody animal rescue groups, focusing on ‘neglected’ jars found within people's kitchen cupboards. For a lesser brand, this could have been a PR disaster: in Marmite’s case the reaffirmation of the product dividing households resonated strongly, and led to a 14% increase in sales.
Can you name another yeast extract spread off the top of your head? Vegemite, maybe, if you’re from down under. Now try for three.
The supermarkets try to produce their own version, but this is merely a substitute for the real deal. Ironically, Tesco’s own brand version even apes Marmite’s iconic jar.
One of the closest equivalents would be Heinz Beans, with its much loved ‘Beanz meanz Heinz’ slogan. Yet even this iconic brand hasn’t been immune to changing tastes: sales last year reportedly plummeted by £50 million.
Unilever’s dispute with Tesco, on the other hand, only helped to further secure its dominance with a 61% increase in sales following Marmite-gate, confirming that the public were happy to pay extra. To reaffirm its position, the brand is always diversifying its product range, as with its range of Marmite infused snack foods and ‘Limited Edition’ variants. Champagne Marmite, anyone?
Through their recent battle with Tesco and continuing market dominance, Marmite demonstrates that brand loyalty, when nurtured properly, can lead to an unrivalled position. Theirs is not a story of luck, but rather of hard work, seeking new ways to market the product and appeal to their followers’ attachment to the brand. Yeast extract may be a niche item, but had Marmite not been managed so successfully, there’s nothing to say a competitor could not have broken into the market over more than a century of trading.
So, whether you love it or hate it, Marmite will continue to be one of Britain’s most cherished brands