We should all celebrate the news that Premier Foods, an FMCG giant, is returning, phoenix-like from the flames of financial meltdown, to success. Yet is the hinted-at removal of its cake brand Mr Kipling’s “Exceedingly Good Cakes” motto a step too far?
In many ways, the story of Premier Foods is a parable that demonstrates some of the worst corporate excesses of the pre-recession era.
Private equity firms, one of the many anti-heroes of the credit crunch, sit centre stage in this story. Since 1999, Premier Foods has been owned by these financial alchemists which, while continuing the tradition of acquiring top brands that has been a hallmark of its 38-year history, did so by leveraging the company with unprecedented levels of debt. When the bubble burst in 2008, Premier was left with an eye-popping deficit that has required a £1.13bn refinancing programme.
For more on the murky world of private equity it’s worth reading BBC Economic Editor Robert Peston’s 2008 book Who Runs Britain? How the Super-Rich are Changing our Lives. But it’s enough to know that it would be inconceivable that Premier Foods would have been in quite so much debt if it had been owned and run in a more traditional form.
Getting through these years of hardship, it’s understandable that the company wants to turn over a new leaf. In the Daily Telegraph on Monday, Gavin Darby, the company’s chief executive, said that part of this renewal will be a focus on Mr Kipling after admitting that the brand had been “the casualty of Premier having no money”.
“The cake category will be our focus for 2014,” he pledged.
This means TV campaigns and brand updates, which will doubtless prove popular with retailers. Yet, when pushed on the fate of the 45-year-old “Exceedingly Good Cakes” strapline, Darby’s response (“We’ll see,” when asked by the Telegraph if it would go) may give more pause for thought.
I doubt there are many Britons who’ve grown up over the past four and a half decades who don’t have a strong emotional attachment to French Fancies, Cherry Bakewells or another of the brands’ range. For a category like cakes and biscuits where comfort, indulgence and nostalgia have such a strong role in our purchasing decisions, I wonder if the loss of an iconic part of their identity is a sign the company is looking in the wrong place to rediscover its magic touch.
For while staff and management at Premier Foods might well want to forget the years of job losses and budget cutting that they’ve come though, their fans are looking for a trip down memory lane from the moment they see the packs on shelf to pleasure of every mouthful they eat. Like it or not, their branding is an exceedingly good way to give them just that.