Faced with the prospect of its business disappearing back in 2006 when the popular image began to be promulgated that "processed foods were junk", McCain embarked upon a campaign to rehabilitate the health credentials of the humble spud and chip, McCain's Bill Bartlett told a conference organised by the Food, Drink and Agriculture group of The Chartered Institute of Marketing last month.
"Four years ago we were in the eye of a storm and the impact was quite dire," reported Bartlett. He noted that scare stories ranging from Sudan 1 and Para Red dye contamination in food; Jamie's School Dinners TV programme; various cancer scares; and health and wellbeing concerns were all taking their toll on sales.
Turning category around
However, Bartlett said the result of McCain's efforts between 2006 and January this year paid off: "We managed to get our products back in growth and we have been credited with turning the category around."
Following a strategic Board decision to research consumer opinions, McCain began a campaign in 2006 to change "ill informed perceptions" about oven chips, he reported. "We needed to dispel the myths," Bartlett said. "So we launched our fight back campaign."
It was all about getting over the message about the purity of the humble spud behind the process. It also involved 300 new specifications for products and replacing 31 ingredients, while reformulating products.
Nasties cut out
Salt levels were reduced to those then sought by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and saturated fats were brought down by switching from vegetable to sunflower oil in an investment costing over £1M.
For the firm's important schools market, for which fried products had been banned, new steam blanching processing techniques were introduced, together with new potato wedge products.
For the retail market, McCain stressed its products' provenance through the introduction of Rustic Oven Chips.
Bartlett reported that, while there were limits to how far salt and fat could be reduced further, McCain was on target to meet the tougher salt targets set by the FSA for 2012 and now adopted under the government's Responsibility Deal with manufacturers.