Premier Foods and the power of plants

In May, Premier Foods – purveyor of iconic British favourites like Ambrosia and Bisto – unveiled its bold vision for a new plant-based brand. Plantastic launched with a vibrant range of healthy flapjacks, with multigrain pots coming in January. It is the first time in the near-history of the company that it has launched an entirely new brand of its own.

The journey began three years ago when Happen helped the team to identify the increasingly impactful promise of plant-based benefits, and uncover the insights needed to drive a new strategy with cross-generational appeal. Importantly, our insight work helped transform what began as a Gen Y opportunity, into a mainstream offering. We talk to chief marketing officer Yilmaz Erceyes about how to make plant-based accessible for all, the challenges of launching a new brand, and why Plantastic is only just getting started.

What drove Premier to launch an entirely new brand?
Health has been a key innovation platform for all our brands – we’ve launched low fat cooking sauces, 25% reduced sugar cake mixes and 30% reduced sugar Ambrosia desserts. However, we noticed there were some health trends we couldn’t effectively access with our existing brands. So we decided to create an entirely new brand that plays in this area a lot more credibly, in a way that appeals across demographics. The Happen team really got this early on. Together, we did a lot of workshops with Gen Y and Gen X to understand how they approach health, identifying the shift towards wellbeing, with a focus on the importance of emotional health. We were interested in better understanding the younger generation but also in creating a proposition with cross-generational appeal.

Why was it so important to be cross-generational?
The aim all along was to be inspired by younger generations, but to appeal across generations. We wanted it to have meaningful, commercial scale and to touch many lives across the population. What we didn’t want, was to create a niche brand that wouldn’t have broad enough shoulders. We wanted to create a brand that could have significant penetration and the potential to become one of our biggest brands five to ten years from now. If you look at some of the most successful brands in this space they appeal across generations.

"Happen really digs in and uncovers the underlying core insights and motivations driving consumers. You can do consumer work - but we all know consumers don’t always say what they do and don’t always do what they say. So to be able to really uncover those motivations takes a certain skill, understanding and expertise."

Yilmaz Erceyes, Chief Marketing Officer at Premier Foods

What were Premier’s most successful previous health launches?
Our low-fat Sharwood Indian cooking range had 75% rate of sales over the original line. We made that change to futureproof the brand but hadn’t expected the impact to be so sizeable. It really took us by surprise. In the past, such changes might have a rate of sales about a quarter of that.

What are the challenges of launching an entirely new brand?
In a way it is easier to work on an existing brand, because you have some fundamentals to hold on to and build from. Some of the biggest brand turnaround stories involved the teams going back to what made the brand famous in the first place. The challenge of creating a completely new brand is the white sheet of paper. It’s vital you find the key insights and purpose of this brand to build around.

When was that moment for you?
The breakthrough came when we identified that plant-based eating was going to be really big, really quickly. We started this journey three years ago, and at that time we could see signs here and there. But it wasn’t as prominent as it is today. Wicked Kitchen wasn’t around, Impossible Foods wasn’t known. Today it sounds very obvious, but when we made the strategic decision that it had to be around plant-based, nutritious, delicious food that everyone can enjoy, that was the inflection point.

What insights drove the brand positioning of Plantastic?
We did a lot of crafting around what the tone of voice should be, and even the claim. We don’t overtly say ‘this is vegan’ – we put that on the back of the pack. Instead, we simply celebrate plant-based eating. The language and claims we used, and what the brand stands for is more inclusive. It stands for many more people enjoying the nutritious and delicious power of plants. That’s been key to making a brand that feels cross-generational. We of course tested the brand with vegans and it has a strong appeal, but it has equally strong appeal among non-vegans.

How did you give the design cross-generational appeal?
When you look at plants, they are very fun and colourful – that is something we wanted to bring to life in order to get people to realise plants taste amazing as well. The whole point of Plantastic is that you don’t have to compromise on taste to be healthy. That’s one of our missions – to create plant-based products that don’t compromise on taste therefore can be enjoyed by everyone. And that’s why we really put our recipe through so many trials. We want it to be more delicious than non-plant-based options so it appeals to more people.

What insights drove that mission?
Early on we identified that people view health more holistically, looking for additional emotional and mental health benefits. And they often don’t know where to start, or it’s not easy for them to access healthy diets. They also think they will need to make significant compromises especially on taste if they want to be healthy. That’s the tension we are trying to solve. The packaging became a big part of that; a reflection of how the brand will taste.

What was the highlight of this entire journey for you?
It was once we identified key tensions we can solve with our new brand – and identifying the brand name. We tested 100 different names, ranging from edgy abstract ones that might not be obvious what the brand is offering when you hear them, to edgy modern ones that also tell you what the brand is about. With Plantastic, you hear the brand and see the design and immediately understand it has to be about plants and signals great taste. When that came together, it was a magic moment.

And your proudest moment?
What I’m proudest of in all of this is seeing the Plantastic brand, which the team has created from scratch, on-shelf. And the very positive feedback we’re getting from consumers so far.

Have learnings from this journey aided the development of other Premier brands?
While developing Plantastic we learned how to talk about health and identified tensions we can resolve within our current portfolio. A great example is a healthy iteration of our Loyd Grossman range that’s about to launch. It’s a range of bolognaise sauces you don’t need to put any meat in – instead, it’s a full sauce with lentils, pulses and grains. We leveraged a lot of learnings from Plantastic’s consumer insights when we developed that proposition – in terms of how we talk about health benefits – without it becoming polarising.

How did Happen help you on this journey?
Happen really digs in and uncovers the underlying core insights and motivations driving consumers. You can do consumer work – but we all know consumers don’t always say what they do and don’t always do what they say. So to be able to really uncover those motivations takes a certain skill, understanding and expertise. And what I’ve always found with the Happen team is the quality of the people who are able to get those underlying insights and convert them into differentiating and motivating brand propositions.

Where will Plantastic go from here?
I’m excited about the opportunities ahead. We wanted to launch a brand that has cross-generational appeal and can live across categories. So far, all testing shows we have created something that can deliver those two objectives. We are creating a brand that can live across many categories, so the opportunities then become limitless. That’s the bit I’m most excited about – building something that can touch millions and millions of lives.