Not to be snorted at

Orchard Pig, mass-niche brands and the value of marketing.

Not so many years ago, cider was considered what my fiancé described when I was trying to turn a phrase for this blog, “the drink of tramps and yokels”- hardly the product you’d chose to build a premium brand around.

But then came the concept of Bulmers over ice in 2004(ish), and suddenly the drink was being consumed in pubs by young people looking to cut a style with their peers. Cider started becoming sophisticated.

At almost exactly the same time, Andrew Quinlan and his business partner Neil Macdonald had just fermented their first barrel of homemade cider which they happily quaffed with friends at a summer hog roast party in the cider-making heartland of the West Country.

Through that pleasant apply haze which can descend on such occasions, they noted that they’d done pretty well at the venture. So much so that a guest ambled over and said that if they’d bottle the brew, he’s sell it in his local shop.

In a flash, Mr Quinlan was off round the next corner of a career path which had already taken more twists and turns than the overgrown country road leading to his current HQ, a stone’s throw from Glastonbury.

Having taken in the pros and cons of being a farm labourer, a Royal Marine, a pet food sales and marketing manager, a purveyor of Bacardi Martini and the manager of a business consultancy specialising in dental practices, Quinlan sold up once again and stumped up the cash to establish his own cider manufacturing operation in Somerset.

And he was determined from the first that it would not be just one more cider making enterprise alongside a host of others in an area already overrun with, mostly small time, cider manufacturers.

Just counting the members of the South West Cider Makers Association shows there are over 50 cider businesses in the West Country – and then there’s non-members, the rest of the UK and new international entrants to the cider market such as Stella Cidre and Kopparberg to compete with.

Branding for growth

To ensure that his cider would stand out, Quinlan drew on the skills he’d gained with Pedigree Foods and Bacardi. He invested his time and resources heavily in activities which far too many UK manufacturers seem almost to consider the mark of the anti-Christ – branding and marketing.

“I’ve no doubt that there are ciders out there that taste better than ours,” Mr Quinlan told me – though I should hasten to add that he’s justifiably proud of the distinct range of flavours Orchard Pig now bottles up (yes – it was my duty as a journalist committed to accurate reporting to sample one or two).“But the brand is a character brand and there isn’t anything else like it in the cider industry so far.”

Quinlan is a manufacturing MD with the refreshing view that “Pretty much anything can be made,” and that “product innovation is relatively easy, but innovating a process for making things and delivering them intelligently and cost effectively to customers who then want more of the same is a lot trickier.”

Working with an external designer to develop his concept, Quinlan has created a playful logo which represents the spirit of the business and makes his product stand out from the pack. As a new brand, he’s gone for character rather than heritage as a point of appeal – and it seems to be working.

In six years the company has gone from zero to £2 million turnover and in 2012, via a carefully selected network of subcontracting arrangements to supplement internal capacity, Orchard Pig sold 2 million pints of cider.

Buoyed up by this swift growth, Quinlan has extended the business plan he originally formulated with help from the South West Manufacturing Advisory Service and is targeting 75% growth for the next three years.

Orchard Pig is rapidly spreading across a network of on-trade points of sale. Seventy per cent of its products are sold through pubs, bars and restaurants where Quinlan says there is more chance of getting the brand in front of the buyer and playing to its strengths – backing it up with marketing paraphernalia like coasters and bar mats. It’s also a more fragmented market.

But it looks like Orchard Pig is like its proverbial brand character in muck when it comes to off-trade too.

It’s the only cider to be stocked by the wine merchant Laithwaites and it’s also on-shelf in Waitrose, Majestic and regional branches of Sainsbury’s and Tesco. The company is even garnering international interest and while it’s not chasing the export market just yet, it has sold cider to customers in Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Holland and Finland.

Exploiting the mass-niche segment

Quinlan says that the quirkiness of the brand has undoubtedly been a deal clincher in these retail opportunities. “We occasionally get turned down because buyers say our brand doesn’t quite fit, and we’re fine with that because the brand is distinctly different from anything else in the cider market and we absolutely rely on that,” says Quinlan who knows that the cider market is still going through a wave of growth where customers are keen to explore new tastes and find out more about provenance – just as the craft been industry saw about ten years ago.

“From a quality point of view I’m very happy with the product, but what has really helped us grow is that pub chains and supermarkets know they need to keep innovating in terms of what they offer to customers,” observes Quinlan. “And we appeal to a different mass niche segment than either the big brands like Magners and Strongbow or the players who are closer in scale to us, like Aspall’s and Perry’s.”

Some thoughts on manufacturing and marketing

Perhaps it’s not so unusual to see a player in food and drink manufacturing attaching such significance to brand power. There are lots of good examples of UK companies who have become important, international mid ground brands thanks to establishing an early reputation for quality and then exploding sales through marketing a strong brand story – Innocent smoothies, Green & Black’s chocolate and Jordan’s cereals spring to mind. Innocent and Green & Black’s are admittedly owned by bigger names now, but the power of their brands to the mass-niche market is evident in the fact that the giant parent companies keep their connection in the small print.

Generally however, there is a serious underestimation of the value of branding and marketing in UK manufacturing.

A 2012 skills gaps report from BIS noted that it is a significant factor inhibiting international growth for UK firms. The bank Santander noted that so many of its industrial clients were lacking in marketing capabilities that it started an internship programme to place graduates with promising SMEs and show them how clever marketing can transform business opportunities.

Andy Palmer, Executive Vice President, Nissan

Too frequently there remains a kind of intellectual snobbery about marketing in manufacturing firms run by leaders with engineering or finance backgrounds. Andy Palmer, vice president of Nissan noted this at SMMT’s International Automotive Summit in June where he admitted that, in the early days of his career, he used to refer to the marketing department as ‘flower arranging’.

Today, he’s a true believer in the value of disciplined marketing and he criticised leaders in his industry for failing to optimise links between design, production, sales channels and the customer base in order to formulate intuitive and effective brand marketing.

The trouble is, that marketing is seen as one of a bunch of ‘soft skills’ which ‘hard’ engineering and manufacturing businesses tend to find irritating. A guest at one of TM’s Directors’ Forum dinner debate recently advised that soft skills themselves needed rebranding as ‘essential skills’ or something similar.

Perhaps so, but in the meantime there is a lot that the breadth of the manufacturing sector could learn from food and drink, and from entrepreneurs like Quinlan, about commitment to brand and effective marketing as tools for resource efficient growth.