Walkers is pouring investment into a super low fat crisp that still tastes great, as general manager Neil Campbell tells Julian Hunt

Funny things, crisps. People get very protective about their favourite flavours and brands. You mess about with recipes at your peril. So what on earth is Walkers up to? It has just unveiled a £20m relaunch of the eponymous bagged snacks brand, which includes the use of some fancy new cooking oil. Gulp. Fear not, says Walkers general manager Neil Campbell, there’s no chance of a Classic Coke fiasco developing here - because new Walkers taste exactly the same as old Walkers. It’s just that they are much, much healthier.
“This move is probably the most important we have ever done. It’s also the biggest change we have made,” says Campbell. “People enjoy eating crisps, which is great as part of a balanced diet, so we are making them as healthy as possible by cutting the saturated fat by 70% to under 1g, which is less than in half a chocolate digestive. We have also reduced salt so that a standard bag will have the same salt as a slice of bread. At the same time we are maintaining the Walkers taste - because that’s why people buy them in the first place.”
It’s a neat trick, and one that can be pulled off only because Walkers has bagged the world’s supply of Sunseed, one of the healthiest cooking oils around. Add in new flavours, funky retro packaging design, heavyweight advertising support and the new GDA labelling being adopted by some of the food industry’s top players, and you can see that this is serious stuff. But what’s behind it? Is it a bit of kneejerk reaction to the food and health debate? Or is it a response to the dramatic 7.3% decline in the Walkers brand recorded in our last Top Products Survey?
Campbell insists it’s neither: “This all started about five years ago. The first thing we had to do was find a healthy oil that could be manufactured on a scale that we could use and that would deliver the great Walkers taste. That meant looking at a whole load of oils until we found Sunseed, which was already being used for things such as baby food. But it was in short supply so we had to embark on a massive agricultural programme to increase the world’s production by 30%.
“We are now at the point where we have enough to use for our main brand. Before that we used the oil in the launch of Potato Heads and blended some in to Walkers last year. But we are now at the point where we can cook totally in Sunseed.”
Campbell reckons Walkers will invest £6m alone on the oil this year. But he says such a spend is worthwhile. “It’s not something that will pay back in the short term but we are taking the view that this is something our consumers would want us to do and because we are moving with their changing needs it’s the right thing to do for the long-term health of our business.”
Campbell talks a lot about how Walkers likes to move with consumers - “If you don’t stay in touch you will not be successful tomorrow,” he says. And the runaway success of Potato Heads last year will clearly encourage his team that they are on the right track with the relaunch of Walkers and will win back those consumers who have been turned off by the unhealthy image of most bagged snacks.
“The market is basically flat,” says Campbell, “but there’s a shift in terms of products. The decline in standard Walkers last year was countered by Potato Heads - and that’s exactly in line with what we are doing. The shape of the market has changed - and we fully expect that there will be increased demand for different, healthier options.”
The relaunch has also gone down well with customers in the trade, says Campbell, who adds: “It’s got scale and it’s a powerful programme. They get it and they believe it is the right thing for their customers.”
Supporting the Walkers relaunch will be new ads featuring Gary Lineker. For Campbell, the footballing hero is a “fantastic ambassador” for the brand; for health campaigners he is often held up as a sign of all that is wrong in the world of food advertising, particularly when it comes to advertising to kids. If that frustrates Campbell, he hides it well - even though, as he points out, Walkers doesn’t buy any airtime around children’s TV programmes for the Lineker ads.
But with Ofcom due to report soon on its proposals in this area, nobody can be complacent. And Campbell says that while Walkers thinks its advertising practices are fine, it will work with other members of the
trade to ensure that its voice is heard in the Ofcom consultation.
In this area, as with so much of the food and health debate, there’s always the hope that some common sense will be applied to the issue under review, with decisions made based on facts. But, as the industry discovered with labelling, that rarely happens. So it was not too surprising that some of the top players, out of a sense of frustration, should have launched their own Guideline Daily Amounts labelling scheme last week - PepsiCo among them. So stand by for GDAs to start appearing on Walkers bags as well.
“The scheme really complements what we are doing. The key thing for us in all of this is to be judged on the facts. And the changes we are making will make the GDA figures very strong,” says Campbell.
Best of all, no matter how healthy they have made the crisps, they haven’t messed about with the taste.
Give us a quick resumé of your career at PepsiCo:
I joined in 1993 and worked up through the marketing side. I spent two and a half years in the Netherlands running the marketing for Benelux. I came back in 1998 and had responsibility for PepsiCo marketing when we brought the company together in 2003. When we moved to the business unit model, I became general manager for Walkers.
You must have seen some incredible changes
In 1993, Walkers and Smiths were only just merging and you had a sense there was great potential. The years have proved the potential.
Why has Walkers been so successful?
We have always done the basics really well. That starts with excellent product quality. Staying in touch with the public and anticipating what they want has also helped.
What about other brands in the portfolio?
Sensations will be relaunched this year. We need to ensure we are innovating to ensure it stays vibrant. We have no major marketing planned for other brands such as Doritos and Quavers.
Go on, tell us: what’s your favourite flavour?
Walkers cheese and onion.
Have you no shame about swapping the colour of the cheese and onion bags with that of salt and vinegar and confusing a generation?
The colour of the bags used for these two flavours is the one thing that comes up most often. If you come from the Midlands you would think this odd because Walkers’ cheese and onion has always been in a blue bag there. So - not guilty!
The shape of the market has changed and we fully expect that there will be increased demand for different, healthier options