Wrigley UK MD Gharry Eccles’ ambitions in confectionery extend beyond bringing excitement to mints, as he tells Liz Hamson

You’d think chewing gum was an illicit activity, the way Gharry Eccles describes it. “How long have you been a chewer? What made you start chewing?” he asks, as though chewing were synonymous with using. “Our mission is to take our brands to where the demand is, to drive it where the urge occurs.”

Fortunately, when it comes to the substances that satisfy that urge, Wrigley doesn’t do too badly. It has the biggest wad of the £266.8m market with a 92% share [ACNielsen], and is close to a distribution deal taking its product to new arenas where the “urge” occurs, reveals Eccles in his first interview since taking over as MD in August.

It has also pushed ahead with its assault on mints, launching Extra Mints and might, hints Eccles, venture even further into mainstream confectionery.

But why would any company want to diversify outside a core market that has grown 35% in the past five years, four times quicker than confectionery as a whole, into a sector down 9% over the last three - particularly when the likes of Cadbury and Nestlé are doing the reverse and moving into the gum arena?

Eccles joined the company as marketing director two years ago after 15 years with Kimberly-Clark - his remit to help ramp up innovation in gum and diversify “close to home”.

Since he joined, Wrigley’s launch schedule has been frenetic: two new versions of Orbit, Blackcurrant Airwaves and orange flavour Hubba Bubba coming out in 2001; X-Cite and Hubba Bubba bubble tape in 2002; and Extra Thin Ice, Orbit Professional, Extra Mountain Frost, Cherry Menthol Airwaves and Extra Mints this year.

Not all have made the grade: in August, X-Cite was withdrawn after 18 months despite having been built into a £10m brand. But Wrigley is making a mint in both senses of the word with Extra Thin Ice mints strips, which won The Grocer Gold award for best NPD and Extra Mints, launched on the back of a £12m marketing spend last month.

The mint sector has performed solidly but has not enjoyed the year-on-year growth of gum. To Eccles, however, the rationale was obvious. “We wanted to bring some growth back,” he says in a swipe at the competition. “There are opportunities for innovation. Over the past two years, nobody’s driven the market forward. Most launches have been packaging-led.”

Wrigley on the other hand, he says, is focusing on new shapes and flavours and also promises major developments in the confectionery market. “Where do we want to be in two to three years? We want to be Wrigley Confectionery Company,” he says. “A core choice has been to diversify close to home. But there will be significant news next year in the confectionery arena.”

Quite what he won’t say, but the key, he says, is being truly innovative. In the UK, a third of Wrigley gum sales are from products less than five years old and many of Wrigley’s biggest-selling products - including Airwaves, Orbit, Ice White and Extra - started life here rather than the US.

Like Nestlé with its Colgate Palmolive tie-up, Wrigley is looking closely at the functional arena. Last month, Orbit Professional, which contains microgranules that can clean teeth, hit the shelves. Wrigley is supporting it with a £5m to £7m spend. Eccles emphasises however that, unlike rival brands, the product is still primarily confectionery. “Some firms have gone overtly oral. We are first and foremost a confectionery company. It’s just that some of our products have functional benefits.”

Underpinning the drive to bring more new products to market is a restructured customer accounts team. Instead of handling both national and regional accounts, it now operates as three divisions covering wholesale, impulse and grocery. “The benefit is focus: we have marketing behind each of the teams developing bespoke solutions,” says Eccles.

He has also been reappraising its advertising strategy in light of the impending Granada and Carlton merger - and the waning impact of TV advertising. “We are taking significant steps on from TV and poster ads into other areas like on-pack and viral marketing. “

The former marketing man sets a lot of store by research. He uses it to dispute suggestions that mint sales cannibalise those in its core gum business. “The research suggests [growth is] going to be incremental.”

And he adds that this year Wrigley has spent £500,000 on a study of consumer behaviour at point of purchase using retina-tracking technology because “the last five yards are critical - it’s when consumers become shoppers”. The research shows consumers look to Extra as a reference point on shelf and Eccles hopes to use the data to leverage the amount of space it gets and to drive “more innovative display solutions”.

Next year, he would also like a bigger presence for Wrigley brands at petrol stations and he is targeting a new market - the vending machine market in pubs, clubs and leisure centres. “Convenience and location are big drivers. The challenge is always the cost of the lines but there are always opportunities. We’re in discussions with wholesalers now.”

Wrigley is diversifying, but it won’t neglect its established gum brands, insists Eccles. Juicy Fruit, Doublemint and Spearmint will be relaunched next year with “significant marketing spend.”Now he is MD, Eccles has made it his mission to turn more people into chewers. There is still a long way to go, he sighs: “In the UK, 28 million people chew - but 28 million do not.”