Winners of the 2006 Branded Suppliers Survey are obsessed with customer service and category growth, reports Alison Clements

Big brand ownership in large, stable grocery categories has never been so challenging. At the very least, retail wholesale and symbol group buyers expect world-class marketing behind branded products. They also want superlative customer service, from collaborative planning to field support, not to mention great prices, a stunning product and supply chain efficiency. Most importantly, today, buyers want suppliers to constantly strive to grow their categories, either through new product development, brand extensions or razor-sharp promotional activity. "Suppliers and retailers alike need to treat category growth as an obsession," says one supermarket trading manager. "Resting on your laurels is no longer an option."

Stewart Waldie, a category controller at Nisa-Today's, says: "Our best suppliers are those really trying to grow the market and that means being proactive and progressive. New products need to work for us in terms of generating solid sales, and often that means a great deal of research, cross-media advertising and support in the field with merchandising and display material."

This year's Branded Suppliers Survey reveals that there is nothing sleepy or staid about manufacturing and supplying everyday branded essentials from bread to bleach,into the nation's stores. The highly competitive and ever-changing nature of the branded business is reflected in some closely fought contests in this year's survey, with some surprise winners.

This year we have winners in 14 categories, as The Grocer has added four new voting areas better to reflect the trading landscape. The wide-reaching "grocery" category has been split into ambient meal solutions, hot beverages, canned goods and cereals. Last year's bread & bakery category has been split into two awards: bread, and biscuits and cakes.

Buyers from the supermarket multiples, wholesale groups, and c-store buying groups took time out of busy schedules to fill in our survey and produce this comprehensive overview of who is delivering first-class business performance in the branded supplier game today.

Manufacturing giant Unilever is arguably the star of this year's show. Despite a tough 2005, with doubts about its growth potential in Europe and takeover rumours much discussed in the press, Unilever UK is clearly getting it right at grass-roots level.

It is recognised in six of the 14 categories, and stamps its authority on the fmcg landscape with three well-deserved golds, two silvers and a bronze.

In last year's awards, Unilever took gold in personal care, and was a bronze winner in several other categories, but this year it is overall or joint champion in dairy & yellow fats, personal care and frozen, takes silver in ambient meals and household, and bronze in hot beverages. "It's a tough marketplace, yet 2005 proved a cracking year for us and we actually had our best year out of five," says Tony Smith, sales director of Unilever.

"The company has been quite clear that we need to grow faster and changes have been announced to meet that challenge. But like everyone else, we are totally dedicated to driving growth, and are constantly working to spot new opportunities."

Smith says that in big, mature markets where you may already have a third of branded sales, companies have to take action with market-moving innovations,and target the other two thirds of the cake or business will stand still.

Dairy is a case in point, he says. "The market for functional mini drinks in dairy is growing phenomenally well and we have made great progress with our cholesterol-lowering drinks, which were introduced in 2004, and our blood pressure control drinks, which hit stores last summer.

"This has been the ideal way to grow the Flora brand into new territory under the Flora Pro-activ label. On the back of this, Flora's main brand has benefited from a halo effect too, with people recognising its value as a healthy-living product."

Unilever has made heart health its focus in dairy. By delivering functional products - products that have a health benefit - supported with smart advertising to educate the consumer, shoppers take notice and retailers win sales, says Smith. "In manufacturing we have to be careful that the new products really are innovations. A new flavour, variety or pack size does not necessarily equal innovation."

Just a few votes behind Unilever in dairy & yellow fats is yoghurt and probiotic drinks supremo Müller, which has slipped into silver position from gold last year, while Arla and Dairy Crest share bronze.

Frozen foods may be virtually static in terms of growth, but the competitive waters are surprisingly choppy judging by the shake-up of winners this year. Unilever put a stop to McCain's three-year reign by taking the top title, and Green Isle disappears off the winners' rostrum. Young's Bluecrest, which was not in the running last year, has done well to shine in third place. In August last year, Young's, Britain's principal seafood supplier, celebrated its 200th year in business, and has won favour with buyers for its growth strategy built on new fish products designed to maximise health and convenience benefits for family consumers.

A great deal of work to warm up interest in the freezer aisle has clearly paid off for Unilever. Major advertising around the freshness of Birds Eye products and a £6.5m advertising spend on the Magnum 5 Senses range last summer worked wonders.

Although Unilever announced recently that it would be selling off the bulk of its frozen business, keeping only the ice cream division, encompassing Wall's, Ben & Jerry's and Carte d'Or, Smith says that it has been vital to maintain all the frozen brands, and continue working with retailers to boost the category. "Naturally it is in our interests to present healthy businesses for sale, and this looks to have been recognised by the retail buying community," says Smith.

This year Procter & Gamble joined Unilever in the top spot for personal care, illustrating how rivals in this field virtually match each other on product quality and levels of service.

Similarly, household was closely fought between gold medallist Procter & Gamble and close second Unilever. Manufacturing powerhouse P&G has seen a focus on innovation be translated into healthy sales, particularly with products such as Lavender and Camomile Bold, Lenor Sleep Sensations and a Flash multi-surface plus glass cleaning spray. Revolutionary products such as the Ariel Stain Pen and the Flash Car Wash System have also generated interest in new corners of the category.

"When it comes to launching brand extensions or new products, we do our best to help retailers drive availability and make on-shelf replenishment as easy as possible," says Giuseppe Casareto, marketing director for P&G Household. "In the past year we have made progress with shelf-ready packaging so that store staff can put branded outer packaging directly on to shelves."

Casareto says that supply chain initiatives are always of interest to P&G, and much progress has been made working with retail groups on RFID programmes and other technologies to keep improving already highly rated supply chains.

While InBev (formerly Interbrew) shared its gold trophy with Scottish Courage last year, it basks alone in the top spot in alcohol this year. The world's largest beer brewer by volume has impressed buyers by managing to keep sight of retailers' needs.

CJ Antal-Smith, beer buying manager at Asda, says InBev is one of the supermarket's category captains, with access to Asda's retail-linked data and therefore considered a valuable collaborative partner. "They are very reliable and work closely with us, advising on the category, helping with range reviews and working proactively on our promotional programme," says Antal-Smith. "Apart from the fact that brands such as XXXX, Boddingtons and Stella perform well, InBev stands out as a good partner because it is always willing to try new ways of doing things, which is something not all suppliers like."

In some instances, our survey demonstrates that you don't have to be big to be the best. Warburtons is awarded gold by the bread-buying fraternity for the third year running. Despite not yet being a national brand, Bolton-based Warburtons continues to grind away at growth, and distribution has now reached a respectable 77% of the country, says category marketing controller Sarah Miskell.

Celebrating its 130th year in production this summer, the family-owned business bakes two million loaves and rolls a day across its 13 regional bakeries. The company spent £18m on advertising last year and has invested £250m in new and existing bakeries since 2000. Miskell puts success down to keeping promises about the freshness and quality of the product and striving to identify consumer needs and develop relevant new products. There is also a willingness to work collaboratively with all retailers.

"We have a local sales force working out of each bakery, so there are 120 people dealing with stores across the multiples and the convenience sector, helping with execution in store, supply issues and so on," says Miskell. Warburtons' bestseller is the White Toastie Loaf, which in its Lancashire heartland accounts for a massive 60% of bread sales. New products such as the All In One loaf and All In One Riddlers demonstrate Warburtons' relentless search for new sales.

This year's bread category silver medallist, Allied Bakeries, can toast the fact that voting this year was much closer between itself and Warburtons than last year. Allied has a third of the bread market, compared with Warburtons' 26%, and buyers marvel at its ability to deliver brands including Kingsmill, Allinson and Sunblest so efficiently across the whole country.

Gary Lineker-endorsed Walkers reaffirms its position as a national super-brand, taking gold for the third year running in crisps, nuts & snacks.

Cara Beeby, PepsiCo trade marketing manager says: "At Walkers we understand the importance of clear communication between supplier, wholesaler and retailer. In 2005 we introduced a point of sale initiative at cash & carries in order to highlight the top 20 bestselling snacks." Beeby says that the 20 bestsellers account for 80% of all snack category sales so identifying these has been key to maximising snack sales for both wholesalers and retailers.

The country's crisp market leader won favour with buyers like John Haken at Iceland for its famously reliable marketing might and the ability to provide retailers with effective products, promotional tools and merchandising solutions to feed growth of snacks sales. In terms of product innovation Walkers has concentrated on the healthy-eating message, with some well-timed recipe changes, and introduced new snacks to market. Cheese Heads have been a great new product to compete with UB's Mini Cheddars, for instance, says Haken.

"Walkers is the clear winner when it comes to driving the category," says Haken. "For me though, United Biscuits just pips Walkers when it comes to commercial flexibility. They really understand our business and are willing to do a different deal for us to ensure we can maximise sales."

UBUK's KP is the number one nut brand in the UK, while UB's The Real McCoy's has been the fastest-growing crisp brand in the past three years, with McCoy's Specials introducing a £20m brand extension into the marketplace last year.

UB also did well relaunching and marketing old family favourite Hula Hoops in March 2005, say contented buyers. "Now with Nik Naks and Wheat Crunchies in our stable, alongside Skips, Roysters, Discos and Brannigans, we really have a range of powerful brands and contrasting textures to suit our audience's ever-changing moods when snacking," says Mark Sugden, director of customer marketing at UB. "We are tapping into the sharing market and introducing lower-fat recipes to meet the demand for healthy-eating options, as is the case with all credible suppliers."

UB has pursued this trend in its core business too - no easy task in the indulgent biscuits and cakes category. UB's biscuit business, McVitie's, is the run-away winner in this new category, with Fox's Biscuits and Burton's Foods in second and third place.

Anthony Faull, trading manager at Palmer & Harvey McLane voted for both United Biscuits and Burton's, appreciating their proactive stance and comprehensive support network when supplying biscuits and cakes. "Manpower in the field is what sets suppliers like these apart from the competition," says Faull. He says that while many suppliers dealing with wholesalers take a back seat once goods are delivered, the likes of UB and Burton's Foods are proactive in driving sales across the national account base.

"Some brand owners can be guilty of managing their brands in a very parochial, non-collaborative way, whereas our aim is to work with retailers from head office account management through to field contact," says Sugden of UB. "We talk to 30,000 individual outlets on a monthly basis, whether dealing with major supermarkets or pure independents, because ultimately we want to make the category look great and be easier to shop."

He says that in the past year UB has helped retail customers reduce their biscuit ranges by 25%, which has resulted in overall category growth because product is easier to find and purchase rates go up.

McVitie's has also served up some tasty new variations of popular favourites, including White Chocolate Digestives and lower--fat Rich Tea, Hob Nobs and Digestives, backed up with high-profile ad campaigns.

And there is acknowledgement of UB's work revitalising the Go ahead! healthy-eating range of chewy cereal bars and yoghurt-topped biscuits.

"These products are exceptional," says one buyer. "While low-fat biscuits and cakes tend to be devoid of flavour, United Biscuits has managed to create healthy options that actually taste good."

Buyers were particularly impressed with UB's crisis management in the past year. Following the devastation of the McVitie's Carlisle biscuit factory in the January 2005 floods, the company switched production to different sites across Europe and the UK to minimise the impact on orders.

Silver medallist in biscuits and cakes is Fox's Biscuits, which also relentlessly pursues growth through product launches. Voters loved innovations such as the Officially Low Fat range of biscuits, which with only 3% fat provide ideal alternatives for health-conscious nibblers who also expect something tasty and satisfying.

James Langan, divisional sales director for Northern Foods' bakery division, says: "We are delighted to have been recognised by buyers in this way and believe it stands testament to our continued and dedicated focus on producing biscuits of excellent quality and the business-wide emphasis on providing best-possible customer service."

Delivered wholesalers supplying goods into the independent sector rate suppliers that provide strong promotional packages.

For this reason many buyers thought Masterfoods the deserving champion in the new ambient meal solutions award category.

The Uncle Ben's and Dolmio brand owner was well ahead of silver winner Unilever and bronze winner Premier Foods.

"We work with Masterfoods on 'meal deal' packages, so that evening shoppers in c-stores can pick up a quick sauce and rice combo for £1.99 to have that night, for example," says John Liptrot, commercial director at Key Lekkerland. "It's crucial that the prices suit shoppers' pockets, and of course determining the right amount of stock for the popular deals is important."

Unilever's Smith says that retailers would have benefited from a new fully automated distribution centre for ambient in Cannock that opened last year. "Retailers are hugely demanding when it comes to accuracy and speed of deliveries, so improvements to our supply chain service are instantly appreciated. This is especially true when we're running popular price promotions."

Well-executed promotions are just as important in hot beverages, where long-established brands and limited brand extension possibilities mean price offers and free gifts can really strengthen sales. Tetley is the buyers' favourite brew in hot beverages this year, with many retailers thankful for consistent advertising support and merchandising advice, as well as great deals. Nestlé, last year's grocery category winner, came in second here.

Unilever, owner of PG Tips, took bronze in hot beverages, but once again deserves an A for effort for its work building brand awareness and excitement around such a mature brand. To mark PG Tips' 75th anniversary last year, Unilever joined forces with Aardman Animation, makers of the Wallace & Gromit film, and with the launch of the hugely successful Curse of the Were-Rabbit movie ran an Aardman-animated TV ad campaign alongside free Wallace & Gromit tea caddies and mugs on special packs. "The offers flew off shelves and that 75-year-old brand ended up doing better last year than it had for the past five," says Unilever's Smith. "Some of us may have thought free gifts were past it 10 years ago, but this demonstrated that if you give something of unique value to customers at the point of purchase, it's highly relevant, and financially rewarding. Essentially it means you can do full-value promotions and build brand loyalty at the same time."

Where there is scope for new product development, the impact on sales can be phenomenal. Without NPD, the UK cereal market would have missed out on growth worth £69m in 2005, when the market was successfully expanded by 6.3%, says Jim McNeill, UK sales director at Kellogg.

Buyers clearly have a great appetite for Kellogg, the ready-to-eat cereal market leader, which took the vast majority of votes in the best branded cereal supplier title, followed by Weetabix, which took silver, and Cereal Partners, which landed bronze. "Growth in value share is the direct result of new product development launched into the category, with new product development contributing 2.2 percentage points last year," says McNeill.

Recent new products have included Special K Medley, designed to appeal to muesli customers who desire a lighter alternative, and Kashi Crunch, an addition to the ultra-healthy Kashi range, which boasts natural ingredients, no salt and seven whole grains. The snacks category has also been expanded with the launch of Nutri-Grain Oat Baked and All-Bran bars, says McNeill.

For Kellogg, the two strongest performing areas today are "shape management" focusing on the Special K range, and "simply wholesome", which includes Fruit 'n Fibre, and buyers feel that Kellogg has been pursuing both to great effect.

Special K and Fruit 'n Fibre are now worth £107m (including Special K bars) and £25m respectively and are given regular bursts of marketing energy with meaningful promotions such as 'Drop a Jeans Size' on Special K. Kellogg's value sales have been growing steadily since 1999 and we continue our commitment to developing the ready-to-eat cereal category, and helping retailers maximise opportunities," says McNeill. In both confectionery and soft drinks there has been little change in the winners' enclosures since last year. Cadbury Trebor Bassett and Coca-Cola Enterprises can both celebrate gold hat-tricks this year, having topped their respective categories since 2004. The two thoroughbreds galloped well ahead of competition that included Nestlé and Masterfoods, winning silver and bronze in confectionery, and GlaxoSmithKline and Britvic in those respective positions in the soft drinks category.

Mike Stagg, grocery trading director for CCE, says: "We place great value in the relationships we have with all of our customers and constantly seek to be a valuable business partner. We always aim to provide strong, well-supported brands across all areas of soft drinks, that provide great rate of sale for the category."

The inaugural winners of our new canned category are Heinz, Premier Foods and Princes. Despite a tough trading year in 2005 for Heinz, and Premier Foods muscling in on its core business by launching a rival product in the form of Branston beans, Heinz confidently seizes gold with as many votes from buyers as the silver and bronze medallists combined.

Last spring Heinz widened consumer choice for baked beans with the introduction of the spicy Mean Beanz range.

"Heinz Spaghetti put kids at its centre with its biggest investment for decades to launch a brand new kids' range, reduced salt, fun new packaging and range refreshment," adds Simon Breckon, senior brand manager for Heinz Beanz. "Additionally, the amount of meat and vegetables was increased in our canned soup range, giving consumers the 'real food' that they want."

An incredible 1.5 million cans of Heinz Baked Beanz are eaten across the UK every day, and as is typical of our winning suppliers, there is no sitting back to glory in that market dominance.

These leading names demonstrate again and again that they're in it for the long term, and will continue to strive to meet the needs of buyers, stores and customers alike.

Our survey confirms loud and clear that the great efforts made to sustain and grow these valuable brands by their owners did not go unnoticed.

Branded winners - Category champions for 2006

Gold - InBev
Silver - Diageo 
Bronze - Constellation Wines

Gold - Warburtons
Silver - Allied Bakeries
Bronze - British Bakeries

Gold - Cadbury Trebor Bassett
Silver - Nestlé
Bronze - Masterfoods

Gold - Walkers
Silver - United Biscuits UK
Bronze - Procter & Gamble

Gold - Unilever UK
Silver - Müller
Bronze - Arla Foods/Dairy Crest 

Gold - Unilever UK
Silver - McCain
Bronze - Young's Bluecrest

Gold - Procter & Gamble
Silver - Unilever UK
Bronze - Reckitt Benckiser

Gold - Masterfoods
Silver - Unilever UK
Bronze - Premier Foods

Gold - Coca-Cola Enterprises 
Silver - GlaxoSmithKline
Bronze - Britvic

Gold - Unilever UK
Gold - Procter & Gamble
Bronze - Colgate-Palmolive

Gold - Tetley
Silver - Nestlé
Bronze - Unilever 

Gold - United Biscuits (McVitie's) 
Silver - Fox's Biscuits
Bronze - Burton's Foods

Gold - Heinz
Silver - Premier Foods
Bronze - Princes

Gold - Kellogg
Silver - Weetabix
Bronze - Cereal Partners

The winners of the Branded Suppliers Survey were voted for by buyers from supermarket multiples, wholesale groups and c-store buying group.

Comments from the industry...

Stewart Waldie, category controller, Nisa-Today's
"Our best suppliers are those really trying to grow the market and that means being proactive and progressive."

Tony Smith, sales director, Unilever UK
"We have to be careful that new products really are innovations. A new flavour, variety or pack size does not necessarily equal innovation."

Sarah Miskell, category marketing controller, Warburtons
"There are 120 people dealing with stores across the multiples and the convenience sector, helping with execution in store, supply issues and so on."

CJ Antal-Smith, beer buying manager, Asda
"The InBev team work closely with us, advising on the category, helping with range reviews and working proactively on our promotional programme."

Cara Beeby, trade marketing manager, PepsiCo
"We understand the importance of clear communication between supplier, wholesaler and retailer."

John Haken, buyer, Iceland
"United Biscuits really understands our business and is willing to do a different deal for us to ensure we can maximise sales."

Mark Sugden, director of customer marketing at United Biscuits UK
"Our aim is to work with retailers from head office account management through to field contact"

John Liptrot, commercial director at Key Lekkerland
"It's crucial that the prices suit shoppers' pockets, and of course determining the right amount of stock for the popular deals is important too." COULD CUT

Anthony Faull, trading manager at Palmer & Harvey McLane
"Manpower in the field is what sets suppliers apart from the competition."

Jim McNeill, UK sales director at Kellogg
"Innovation has always been at the core of the Kellogg business and is one of the fundamental keys to success."

Guiseppe Casareto, marketing director for P&G Household
"We have made progress with shelf-ready packaging, so that store staff can put branded, outer packaging directly onto shelves."