McLelland has made bold tactics deliver serious money says Kit Davies

Raunchy sex. Playboy crime. Cheddar cheese. It might sound an improbable mix, but together these elements have transformed A McLelland into a power brand player. Its James Bond-style Mousehead TV ad campaign, the successor to Safe Sex Dangerous Cheese, has further boosted the power of Seriously Strong Cheddar.

The cheddar is now the number two cheese brand in Britain and snapping at the heels of Cathedral City, while the £127m turnover company is Britain’s third largest supplier of cheddar and is poised to get bigger still, say joint MDs, brothers Alastair (37) and Douglas Irvine (34), talking to The Grocer after scooping the Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year title last month.

The supermarkets crave innovation and flair, particularly in a sector like cheese that has struggled to get away from yellow wall status. Alastair and Douglas make it look easy. So what are their secrets?

The brothers are the fifth generation of the family and took over as joint MDs in 1995 when the company was restricted to north of Hadrian’s Wall. They launched Seriously Strong and took an ambitious, national approach that delivered. Turnover shot up from 1996’s £28m.

In the same week that the company won the Ernst & Young award, it began the process of taking over Wales’ Aeron Valley Cheese Co-operative by purchasing a 50% stake from Irish co-op Dairygold and 30% from UK co-op First Milk, which retains 20%. Douglas hints at further acquisitions if opportunities come up. Meanwhile, the shift in marketing strategy to give Seriously Strong broader appeal has achieved 75% growth. The Safe Sex Dangerous Cheese campaign in trade press and titles like Cosmopolitan and FHM has been replaced by the TV capers of Bond-style, heist-organising villain Mousehead, developed by 1576 Advertising.

It is a switch from wooing young professionals to appealing to the whole family. Kids apparently love Mousehead, which cost £2m to develop, and new adventures are now on the drawing board.

The brothers pride themselves on going against the flow. Cathedral City and Pilgrims Choice are “Puritan in their approach, almost our opposites,” says Douglas.

“We want to be different in everything we do. It takes a lot of confidence but it gives you one heck of a buzz. When you are different, it does work. The excitement of seeing something come out swallows up the fear. You must have the confidence to take risks.”

They certainly did that with Seriously Strong. Safe Sex was not only well into foreplay, it was a vision of cheese as executive accessory. But the brothers believe that being over the top is a better tactic than wallowing in pastoral imagery. That and being bang up to date: the Mousehead ads use digital animation from the Harry Potter stable - as well as a scantily clad girl, of course.

While striking marketing has been a USP for the company, Douglas emphasises the importance of underpinning it with product consistency. The company has spent £15m
developing its fully automated Stranraer mega-plant, which comes on line this month and is thought to be the world’s largest facility of its kind. “The plant uses machinery never seen before in the cheese industry,” says Alastair. “We dreamt up machines and then found someone to build them.”

He rejects suggestions that the company is taking too much of risk, given the resurgence of interest in artisan products. “You don’t have to be small to be beautiful. At the British Cheese Awards, for example, we compete as a large-scale manufacturer directly with more artisan manufacturers, but in blind trials we win a lot of prizes. Many people who enjoy cheese think large-scale manufacturing doesn’t produce good quality cheese. We have proved that to be untrue.”

The brothers also think it is essential to work in partnership with farmers and make them commercially aware. “Much of the politics we see in dairy is often a lack of understanding and unwillingness for free communication to go on. The companies doing well are those that have partnered with farmers. Look at Robert Wiseman.”

McLelland has made a virtue of taking risks. But, says Douglas, that is just one secret of its success.

“My father said that if you wanted to be successful, surround yourself with successful people. It is all very well dreaming up whacky, off-the-wall concepts, when everyone thinks you are ‘mad, absolutely mad’. You must back them with the best.”