The marketing of Lea & Perrins

There are two key marketing strategies at work behind the almost mythic reputation of Lea & Perrins’ Worcestershire sauce.

1.) the “secret” recipe The website states that there is a secret recipe, known only to a “privileged few”. Heck, if the secret recipe tactic works for Coca-Cola and KFC, why not us? But the truth is, *every* corporate recipe is a secret. You don’t know the recipe for Walker’s Roast Beef crisps or Knorr’s Chicken Seasoning, do you?

So one of the products major differentials is hardly a differential at all. Okay, I hear you say, we don’t know what Worcestershire sauce is! Well that’s hardly a secret. In fact, the company have been quite open that the sauce is principally vinegar and a soy sauce substitute (acid-hydrolyzed vegetable protein). Also included are salted anchovies, tamarinds, chillies, shallots, garlic, onions, ginger, molasses, sugar, cloves and “various fruits”.

2.) the idea of “craft”, small-scale, “vintage” traditional production. There is no reason to assume that the methods are more traditional than anywhere else. For example, the ingredients are no longer matured in wooden barrels: plastic and metal containers have taken over. It’s hard to see it as a craft product when it’s just vinegar and soy sauce with some crazy ingredients thrown in for good measure. Although I do love it with chilli con carne… And in the US, it still comes wrapped in paper, as it has been since the 1850s. Although the paper is no longer necessary to avoid bottle breakages, the tradition has endured. It gives the original Worcestershire Sauce a USP. Understand that I don’t mean to do down the marketing tactics behind Lea & Perrins’ famous product. In fact, I think it’s all the more impressive that tried and tested marketing techniques have been utilised so effectively without losing its sense of authenticity or becoming a “me too” brand.

The false appeal of Waterstones

Outside of the mass-market, Waterstones has a stranglehold on British high street bookselling.

The Waterstones story is one of successful brand management. The basic concept is to take the appeal of an independent book shop, and monetise it with the professionalism of a large chain.

The chain introduced large American-style bookshops to the UK in the 1990s, in the style of Borders or Barnes & Noble, in locations such as London, Birmingham and Glasgow.

Being owned by WH Smith and subsequently HMV didn’t seem to harm their “independent” image. Neither did buying up their major competitors Dillons and Ottaker’s .

[Waterstones] has expanded rapidly since its launch in the early 1980s by combining the scale of a multiple retailer with the personalised service of a local bookseller.

Source: Financial Times (1997)

It is perennially portrayed in the media as some sort of charitable venture, a relentless underdog. This is characterised by the eccentric founder, Tim Waterstone. He constantly plays the role of scrappy underdog to whichever corporate entity currently owns the chain. As if after selling your company, you still have some sort of innate rights regarding its future.


I’ve noticed that, over the last 30 years or so, Whitbread can almost be considered as much a marketing company than a hospitality company.

In the 1970s through to the 1990s, the Whitbread Beer Company established Heineken, Stella Artois and Boddingtons as leading beer brands in the UK, thanks to innovative marketing campaigns.

This innovative approach to marketing is written in the company’s DNA. Beer throughout much of the twentieth century was dominated by the Big Six companies. As much the smallest of these, Whitbread was forced to advertise its products heavily: Mackeson Stout and Gold Label are examples that are still around to this day.

Another Whitbread brand, Costa Coffee, is as much a triumph of marketing over substance. Whitbread also developed Pizza Hut and TGI Friday’s in the UK. These restaurants offer an experience as much as they do food.

The marketing of Nespresso

The success of Nespresso, appears to me, to be an instance of style over substance.

The product is quick, and clean, but relatively expensive, and in my opinion, the quality of coffee that emerges from the collaboration between pod and machine is no better than, or even inferior, to cafetiere coffee, and even my regular Douwe Egberts (freeze-dried) instant coffee.

Although apparently a 27 year old technology, the product only seems to have taken off in the last few years, spurred by an admittedly slick campaign fronted by George Clooney, gentleman cad. Seldom has a celebrity face been used so effectively in order to sell a product. But it should be borne in mind that Nestle thought it would be a good idea to market Nescafe in the early 1990s with suave and charming ladies man of the moment, Anthony Stewart Head. The Head associtation is now embarrassing. This is a potential problem if you (like Nestle have) invested heavily in your brand as a luxury product. Ten years from now, Clooney may well seem uncool. Hence, your brand seems uncool. Heavily associating your brand with just one individual (no matter how rugged) can damage your brand in the long run.

Another expert wheeze has seen Nestle severely limit the number of “boutiques” that sell the product. Scarcity makes the product seem special: never underestimate the stupidity of the crowd. The large Nespresso shop frontage on Regent Street is a work of marketing genius. Sell coffee pods as luxury product. with a corresponding premium price.

People may laugh at a monkey hand puppet being used to sell PG Tips, but Clooney is being used to sell a product that is frankly as much use as a chocolate tea pot, for triple the price of regular freeze-dried coffee.

The rise of “craft”

The notion of craft and premium quality food and drink did not arise from the ether. In this post I attempt to trace its roots in recent history.

With the end of post-war rationing in Britain, a range of super-premium restaurants with a focus on local provenance opened in the North West of England. Beginning with Sharrow Bay in 1960, they catered to a very small segment of the population, and furthermore, the occasional visit to a high quality restaurant did not equate to a national lifestyle change. But the growth did indicate a desire for authentic, quality food.

In the 1970s, the British public were enamoured with the wave of new packaged and processed products: Watney’s Red Barrel ale, yoghurt, frozen food etc. They were expensive, but people were prepared to pay a premium for it because it was new, and perceived as “better” (it had technology and science behind it after all!)

The late 1970s and 1980s saw the growth of the real ale movement, which advocated small scale production, localness and traditional production methods. But the provenance doesn’t even have to be your localness: just provenance in general seems to suffice. One had only to witness the growth of Whitbread’s Stella Artois in the 1980s and 90s, a beer marketed with French language advertisements, despite being brewed in the UK, and with origins in Flemish speaking Belgium.

Another interesting example is Jack Daniel’s whisky. With a monochrome label and adverts, the product was able to successfully foster a small scale image, “craft” image. This consumer “backlash”, as it were, stems from a new-found consumer cynicism. The consumer knows that most products they buy in their supermarket are owned by multi-national conglomerates. Many people do not like giving their money to perceived faceless corporate entities. Any product that seems to defeat or circumnavigate this system, and treat the consumer like an adult, seems to be on to a winner. People will pay far more than net worth for a perceived craft product because it makes them feel good for two reasons: supporting local or craft production, and avoiding the multinationals. I don’t think this applies to the whole population, but I think it applies to a good number.

The examples are endless, but I will give just one more: Yorkshire Tea. The name “Yorkshire” implies traditional craft methods and localness. The name isn’t faceless and bland like competitor brands PG Tips and Tetley Tea. The brand wears its provenance proudly, and isn’t ashamed of its local origins. The brand came from nowhere in the 1990s to becoming the third highest selling tea brand in the country by 2007. It wasn’t until 2000 that it became a nationwide supermarket staple. The brand has a surprisingly modern heritage: I doubt that many of its consumer base would estimate that the brand was only launched in 1977. Meanwhile rival brands such as PG and Tetley patronised the audience with television adverts that starred cartoon characters, chimpanzees and monkey hand puppets. The consumer goods advertising market has matured. Treating consumers like idiots works far less well than it used to. Consumers appreciate being treated like human beings.

The premium/provenance market shows little sign of slowing. Borough Market in London is now firmly established as a destination for quality food with provenance. The celebrity chefs have long promoted locality and quality. Farm shops are now ubiquitous in many English villages.

Craft brands need to be careful to maintain their image. Stella Artois sold for the same price as other premium lagers, despite its slogan of “Reassuringly expensive”. Consumers get wise to a brand that seems inauthentic, and it irritates them as an insult to their intelligence. Stella is now, frankly, a commodity lager, and its premium positioning has largely been given over to the Italian Peroni brand, which had spread largely through word of mouth.