Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Marmite: Which side are you on?

Marmite: The thick, dark brown paste with a sharp odour and distinctive saltiness that’ll make your toes curl. Perfect on toast, crackers and digestive biscuits alike; a wonderful accompaniment to many a cheese; and, most importantly of all, either loved or hated, never in-between.

British shops have stocked Marmite on their shelves for over a hundred years. Its basic form was invented in the late nineteenth century by a German scientist, who accidentally discovered that concentrated brewer's yeast could not only be eaten, but enjoyed. The Marmite Food Extract Company was later formed in Burton upon Trent in 1902. The name comes from a French term for an earthenware cooking pot, which the product was initially packaged in until the 1920s when it was replaced by the familiar glass jar. To this day, the logo boasts an image of that very type of pot.

For decades Marmite was regarded and marketed as a hearty food spread, especially popular with vegetarians as a meat-free alternative to products such as Bovril. The discovery of vitamins in 1912 had been a boon for the brand due to it being a source of Vitamin B, and straplines of the 1930s like ‘Marmite definitely does you good’ surely swayed anyone who had their reservations.

During the Second World War, British troops were issued Marmite as part of their rations, whilst housewives were encouraged to spread it thinly to conserve supplies. In the 1950s, the feelgood factor of a secret recipe handed down over the generations, coupled with health benefits for children, helped to push sales; and in 1969, ‘The Marmite Guide to Better Cooking’ came free with purchases. By 1973, ‘The Growing Up Spread’ strapline secured Marmite as a foodstuff for the entire family.


It wasn’t until the 1980s when Marmite’s humorous approach began. The ‘My Mate Marmite’ advertising campaign was launched in 1987, with army privates enjoying well-deserved yeast extract on toast (Marmite and soldiers – get it?), although Jones couldn’t help but give in to temptation even when he should have been falling into line.

However, though Marmite’s recipe has remained largely unchanged, its marketing tactics went through a major adjustment over the years. Marmite marketers recognised there was a blatant segment of British buyers that not only didn’t purchase their product, but loathed it with a passion. Unlike many foods, the paste’s flavour wasn’t one that allowed you to sit on the fence: you either loved it, or hated it. And with this revelation, a brilliant polarised campaign was born.

The Marmite ‘Love it/Hate it’ crusade has been going strong since 1996, with the dual skinned website asking whether you’re a Lover or a Hater. An example of the Lovers’ perspective is when a lifeguard breaks away from his snack to rescue a drowning man, who is then overcome with passion for the spread. Meanwhile, the Haters will surely sympathise with the poor young man whose evening doesn’t go according to plan due to a certain product on his date’s lips.

Over the last fifteen years, the British public has seen a wide range of conflicting Marmite advertising. Branded buses have sported ‘Honk if you eat Marmite’ on one side and ‘You'll Honk if you eat Marmite’ on the other. For its centenary in 2002, Zippy, the greedy character from Rainbow that never shuts up, fastened his mouth closed when confronted with Marmite on toast, whereas Paddington Bear shared a delicious Marmite sandwich with a passing pigeon, with disastrous consequences. The clever thing about this campaign is that, aside from gaining much public attention and being memorable, those who hate the product due to its taste will surely love the brand for its bold strategy and wonderful style.

Marmite is a brand recognised by all Brits. Jars can be found in practically every grocery outlet in the country; there are related products, such as breadsticks, rice cakes, crisps, cheddar, cashew nuts and ‘Marmite Very Peculiar Milk Chocolate’; we’ve even seen Guinness Marmite, Champagne Marmite, and Marston’s Pedigree Marmite to celebrate the 2009 Ashes. The branding is so ingrained in the public’s consumer psyche, when Marmite Squeezy was released in 2006 – their first new product in 103 years – the usual typeface was replaced by the words ‘Squeeze Me’ in the characteristic font and colour palette, with no ambiguity whatsoever as to the contents. That year, Marmite Squeezy accounted for 10% of the brand’s sales.

A recent development has been Marmite's Haute (with the jar blocking the 'u') Cuisine, offering simple and delicious recipes brought to us by Dom Joly, available on its YouTube Channel.

Whichever side you take, you can’t deny that the advert below stuck in your mind like brown paste to a blonde moustache. How many of us found ourselves whistling this tune at the bus stop, or absently humming it whilst pottering about the house? I know I did, and I couldn’t stand the stuff until a few years ago. Marmite’s my mate, is it yours?

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