Branston deal shows the pickle Premier Foods is in

Old food brands don’t die, they just get traded away. The latest to fall under the auctioneer’s hammer is Branston – sweet pickle, but also ketchup, mayonnaise and salad cream – which has been knocked down to Japanese relishes specialist Mizkan for £92.5m. It’s the second deal Premier Foods has done with Mizkan. Earlier this year, Premier sold its Haywards pickles business and Sarson’s vinegar brand to the privately-owned Japanese company for £41m.

Not so long ago, Premier was being billed as Britain’s biggest (indigenous) food company. That reputation has long gone, as the company attempts to salvage what credibility remains in the City with a seemingly endless series of disposals aimed at tackling massive over-leverage (it borrowed far too much in the good years) and a burgeoning pension liability.

The finance boys, not to mention Premier’s new(ish) broom chief executive Michael Clarke (formerly Kraft Food Euro chief), are so chuffed at being ahead of schedule in reducing the debt mountain that they seem to have forgotten what the company is about.

These days, the only media ripple Premier manages to make is when it announces yet another fire-sale. Last December it was Brookes Avana, its loss-making chilled food business, sold for £30m. Earlier in 2011, it canning business went to Princes (now part of Mitsubishi) for £182m, and before that, the meat-free business – commonly known as Quorn – for £205m.

In fact, so many brands have disappeared from the portfolio in the past few years that people must wonder what – if anything apart from trying to make money – the Premier umbrella brand stands for these days. Remember Gale’s Honey? Robertson’s Jam? Hartley’s? Chiver’s? Typhoo Tea? All once UK household names – now long since divested.

And more disposals are on the way. Bird’s Custard, for example. And even – if the price is right – the Premier bread business; that’s Hovis to you and me. Which, if I remember rightly, was the jewel in the crown when Premier acquired the old Ranks Hovis McDougall business back in 2007.

The talk in the boardroom is of scaling back to the unassailable fortress of Premier’s so-called “Power Brands”, of which Hovis is currently one (that unassailable). The others are Mr Kipling, Ambrosia, Sharwood’s, Loyd Grossman, Oxo, Bisto, and Batchelors.

To the untutored eye, there’s nothing very “unassailable” about any of these, either. The Loyd Grossman business is unlikely to much outlive the celebrity of its founder. As for Bisto, Batchelors, Mr Kipling and Ambrosia, they are in – or moving towards – the brand museum category: famous items in the pantry a generation ago, but now confined to a dubious ranking on the health traffic light scheme featuring in your local supermarket.

Unilever and the likes of Néstlé, Kraft, Campbell’s and RHM saw the dismal future awaiting such brands long ago, which is why they first of all cut off marketing support and then disposed of them. Scavenging such brands may have made sense while borrowing costs were no object; and the supermarkets were still prepared to offer them a reasonable amount of shelf space. But they aren’t any more.

For that reason, a big question mark hangs over Premier, its “Power Brands”, and the continuing viability of its business model.

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About Stuart Smith

Stuart Smith is one of the most incisive and knowledgeable commentators on global marketing. He was a long-time editor of Marketing Week during the period when it was the UK’s leading marketing, media and advertising specialist publication. Visit Stuart Smith Blog.

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