When a cavalcade of divisive press greeted the death of Margaret Thatcher last spring, The Guardian captured the debate with a simple image: a jar of Marmite, with the brand name switched to Margaret. While the illustration would have been incomprehensible to anyone not versed in British culture, it was simple shorthand for those that are – you either loved her, or you hated her.
Marmite’s status as a product to love or hate has become so embedded in the English language that the salty spread is now a quick byword for anything contentious. Describe something as ‘a bit Marmite’ and we all know exactly what you mean. The expression feels like it is as old as time, and yet it is actually less than 20, spawned by ad creatives Richard Flintham and Andy McLeod when the duo were at BMP DDB (now Adam&EveDDB).
Invented in 1902, Marmite is a national treasure in the UK, a position that few brands occupy. This is in part due to the spread’s longevity, but in recent decades has been underlined by a series of playful pieces of advertising and clever use of packaging. At the forefront of this marketing is the Love It or Hate It slogan, which heralds the brand’s ability to be both quirky and frank.
“I think Love It or Hate It has transcended the years ultimately because we’ve developed ads that are quite groundbreaking in their honesty,” says Joanne O’Riada, Marmite Brand Manager at Unilever. “Our ads always spark off debate, they get people talking, and they challenge you to declare which side you stand on. And with that brings a lot of humour and cheekiness to the table.”
“A little bit of honesty in advertising can really get people on your side,” agree Rob Messeter and Mike Crowe, creative directors on the Marmite account at Adam&EveDDB. “It’s certainly a brave position to take, actively saying some people hate your product, but it’s paid off and still resonates with people. Whichever marketing team signed this off deserves huge credit.”
As the Guardian ad illustrates, the Love It or Hate It theme has taken on a life of its own, which, according to Messeter and Crowe, can actually present certain obstacles in the brand’s advertising. “It feels like the public have appropriated the Love It/Hate It slogan and in many ways have more ownership of it now,” they say. “Hardly a day goes by without someone somewhere referring to something as being Marmite. That’s obviously great for the brand, but on the downside it has meant that we need to bring the focus back to the spread itself.”
A return to TV
This desire to bring the public’s attention back to the product led to last year’s TV campaign, Neglect, the brand’s first for two years. It was a striking spot: shot in the style of a documentary TV show, it showed jars of Marmite being rescued from the back of kitchen cupboards, where they had been left to languish. The work felt different for Marmite, and daring. “We were coming from the viewpoint that we needed to bring Love/Hate to life in a new way,” says O’Riada. “We sought out a bold idea that was going to cut through, but it was ultimately based on a consumer insight that one in ten Brits hadn’t opened their Marmite in the last three months…. Then it evolved into this ludicrous play on old animal rescue programmes of the 90s.”
The spot captured the public’s imagination and was very popular, though its realistic style proved a little too affecting for some. The commercial prompted over 500 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority for supposedly trivialising the work of animal welfare charities and child protection agencies.
Though the advertising watchdog ultimately cleared that ad, the response from the public was a surprise to the team. “It was very clear from the outset that this was a spoof,” says O’Riada now. “It was very heavily branded, we didn’t set out to create an ad that was going to trick people, we wanted to be clear from the start that this was a Marmite ad. We just went at it from a different kind of style, a documentary style, which I suppose we haven’t really done in the past.”
“We honestly weren’t expecting that much [controversy],” say Messeter and Crowe. “We discussed this at length with the team, Nick and Tom, and our director, James Rouse. What was always in our minds was to deliver the strongest, funniest, most entertaining launch ad that we could. Looking back, it was always a possibility, given the British public’s love of pets. But we went to great care to make sure the characters and the overall tone was likeable rather than crass.”
The love of limited editions
The reason that there had been a prolonged gap in TV advertising for the brand was in part due to a focus on packaging as a marketing tool. Over the past seven years, Marmite has recognised the power of the ‘limited edition’, producing a series of themed jars that have tied into events including the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, as well as Valentine’s Day and Christmas. Each limited edition jar has seen the brand’s familiar packaging slightly tweaked. Sometimes this has even included a witty adaptation of the product’s name: the Jubilee edition saw the spread relabelled as Ma’amite, for example.
While the first official limited edition jar, a tie-in with Guinness to celebrate St Patrick’s Day, was released in 2007, this experimental approach with the packaging design actually reaches back to the launch of the Love It or Hate It slogan, when special jars saying ‘I Love It’ and ‘I Hate It’ were released.
The limited edition jars have proved massively popular with the public, and are clearly a pleasure for the team to work on too. “Limited editions are such exciting projects for us,” says O’Riada. “Marmite is Marmite, there’s only so many ways that you can innovate, but we’ve found that our limited editions … get a substantial amount of PR coverage, the press just loves them. They create great buzz … and people collect them.”
For Nick Green of design studio Hornall Anderson, which produces Marmite’s packaging design, this collectability is at the forefront of the look of each of the limited edition jars. “The brief is always very flexible,” he says. “Each limited edition needs to be relevant – highly desirable and collectible. Marmite has fans, like a football team has supporters…. We play with different elements of the design each time, for example the label shape, the name etc. But it is vital to keep enough of the DNA within each final design so that it is unmistakably Marmite at a glance.”
Marmite’s look is iconic. This was proven in its inclusion in Selfridge’s ‘No Noise’ themed events at its London store in January and February last year, to celebrate ‘the power of quiet’. The store commissioned special editions of various famous products, all with their lettering removed. To be successful, the included brands had to be recognisable by their colouring and packaging alone: the Marmite jar fitted perfectly.
“Its distinct look and taste are its real benefits,” continues Green. “Mess with them at your peril. We look to embrace this in all the work, to play with the strengths of the iconic identity. Everything we do is brand-centric, for example, when Marmite enters the ‘rice cake category’, it does so unapologetically as Marmite, it does not play to category norms. Another example is Marmite Squeezy. The pack structure had to look like the iconic jar shape, just upside down. The jar shape is as much a part of the Marmite identity as the logo and graphics. Anything else would have just felt wrong.”
A sociable spread
Backing up Marmite’s experimental advertising and packaging is an ongoing dialogue with its fans via social media. The brand has over one million likes on Facebook, and delivers a stream of loose recipe ideas (a suggestion to dip cheesy Wotsits in Marmite is a recent popular example), Marmite-y imagery, and general Marmite-based cheer to fans on a daily basis. The brand’s social media work is handled by Splendid PR and the tone used online is carefully thought out. “This is not a commercial site,” says O’Riada, “we don’t push product. This is an opportunity for people to come on, have some fun and really engage with us.
“We keep up to date with what competitors are doing,” she continues. “There are some amazing other brands out there that we look to. You have to be creative and play in that space in order for your brand to get noticed. [We’re] very aware that on Facebook the cut through is becoming more and more difficult.”
Its Facebook presence also provides a vital insight into Marmite’s customers and their ideas. “It’s all about opinion, it’s all about talking and hearing what our consumers have to say,” says O’Riada. “They’re really important to the development of advertising and the development of our limited editions, we genuinely really listen to them.”
While all this success may seem effortless for a brand as well-loved as Marmite, it is clear that every step that is taken, whether it be in advertising, packaging or online, is carefully thought-out and cared for. This is perhaps most important in social media, where a brand can find itself caught up in controversy in the blink of an eye. “Humour is so important to it,” says O’Riada of their approach online. “We always try to keep our fans entertained. And we do – the engagement scores are massively positive for liking, sharing, for commenting.
It’s something we’re incredibly proud of and have worked very closely with the PR agency [to achieve]. And we never get complacent about it, because the minute you get complacent, that’s the end of it.”