The brands that make Brits go weak at the knees and the stark lesson to be learnt
McVitie’s has been part of UK life for decades. The story begins with apprentice baker Robert McVitie, who was born in Dumfries, Scotland, in 1809.
In 1839, he opened a ‘provision’ shop on Rose Street in Edinburgh, which gained instant popularity. His son, Robert Jnr – having trained as a baker in Europe – veered the business into the biscuit arena (largely due to their longer lifespan), forming McVitie & Price when Charles Price joined in 1875.
The company’s first major biscuit was the McVitie's digestive, created in 1892 by Alexander Grand, a new employee. It gained its name because its high baking soda content was believed to aid food digestion.
McVitie & Price merged with Scottish bakery manufacturer Macfarlane, Lang & Co. in 1948 to become United Biscuits Group, which was acquired by Turkish company Yildiz in 2014, merging with some its subsidiaries to become pladis in 2016.
In 2020, sales of McVitie’s biscuits in the UK raked in £48m (27 million packs), ahead of its closest rival Kit Kat, with £13.1m, according to Nielsen.
'Unbelievably powerful emotions'
Recently, a consumer survey conducted by London-based advertising agency isobel to determine the UK’s most nostalgic brands, revealed 63% of consumers said they had bought McVitie’s in the past five years, with 59% explaining it is highly likely they will again buy the brand in the next 12 months.
The Nostalgia Brands Top 10 analysis targeted 1,500 UK consumers (18+ and nationally representative) to identify the brands they feel most strongly about.
“Nostalgia can be an unbelievably powerful emotion and we were keen to understand which brands elicit positive feelings and fond memories with UK consumers,” said Steve Hastings, planning partner at isobel.
“We also wanted to explore the ongoing relevance of these brands and how or if they are managing to engage the next generation of consumers.”
Narrowly missing first place, After Eight received the nostalgic nod by 58% of Brits.
Fox’s came in third with 55% of the votes.
Equally embedded in British history, Fox’s legacy begins with brandy snaps. Michael Spedding baked his very first batch in 1853, soon selling to shops and traders from his Batley bakery in West Yorkshire.
The company was renamed F.E. Fox & Co after son-in-law Fred Ellis Fox took over the business in 1897, and finally Fox’s Biscuits, when it became a limited company in 1960. In October 2020, Ferrero bought Fox's Biscuits for £246m.
Retro ice-cream brands Vienetta and Cornetto came in 4th and 5th, respectively, in isobel’s survey.
Bisto came in sixth place, followed by Toblerone and Penguin.
In ninth place was Mr Kipling’s, created in 1967 by Rank Hovis McDougall, which wanted to boost cake sales with a new concept (individually boxed cakes). The brand name was invented for marketing purposes and is intrinsically linked with the phrase ‘exceedingly good cakes’. It became the UK market leader in 1976, a position it still holds over 40 years later.
Ambrosia came in 10th place.
Top 20 Nostalgia Brands (British adults, 18+)
Weetabix and Mini Cheddars
Gen Zs write their own list
The top 10 list looks very different when it comes to the younger set’s opinion.
A separate survey of Brits aged 18-24 identified Carte D’or made by Wall’s UK as the ‘most British’ British brand, with Angel Delight in second spot, followed by flavoured milk Yazoo.
Top 10 Nostalgia Brands (18-24 year olds)
Nesquik and Vienetta
What’s more surprising, however, is the number of heritage brands that younger consumers have never even heard of, according to the survey analysts.
Shockingly (to us older consumers), 73% of Gen Zs are blissfully ignorant of meat extract brand Bovril; 72% claim not to have heard of Lea & Perrin’s; 68% state they do not know of soup brand Baxters; and 66% are unaware of the malted milk drink Horlicks.
“These figures show just how easy it is for a brand to lose its status as a favoured household name,” said Hastings.
“A brand can only survive if it has some real estate in people’s heads. It has to have some memories, associations or appeal to stand a chance of getting to the ideal state of having ‘mental awareness’.”
According to isobel, the research has revealed a disconnect between brands with which consumers have some form of latent emotional connection and their willingness to purchase those products.
Bird’s Custard is a brand that almost half of UK consumers (44%) have positive feelings towards, yet only 32% said they would be likely to buy the product in the next 12 months and just 30% saying they would be sad to see it discontinued.
This discrepancy is an emerging pattern among a number of nostalgia brands.
“Wagon Wheel is a brand that evokes happy childhood memories for many of us and not surprisingly, has been identified as a top ten nostalgia brand. However, while half of UK consumers cited the sweet biscuit – launched in 1948 – as a product they have fond memories of, only 38% stated they are likely to buy it in the next 12 months.”
Added Jamie Williams, managing partner at isobel, “Nostalgia may be enough to maintain a place in consumers memories, but it’s not enough alone to remain on consumer’s shopping lists.
“To maintain growth, brands must stay relevant to new audiences, continue to drive trial and attract new consumers.
“And in today’s economic climate, this is becoming more and more important. Harnessing the positives of nostalgia can be key to this, as in troubled times, brands can play important roles in all our lives.”