MD Mohamed Elsarky is targeting his iconic brand at new consumers and markets says Liz Hamson

It’s really bad,” sighed a young friend the other day as she bemoaned the empty shelves at her local supermarket. “You couldn’t even get any Jacob’s cream crackers.”

That she picked the stalwart of granny’s biscuit tin as a litmus test of availability came as a bit of a surprise - she is under the age of 30 and prefers her biscuits chocolate-coated.

That she would not have put it in her trolley encapsulates the key challenge facing Mohamed Elsarky, the new MD at Jacob’s: how to translate the strong brand awareness of its more traditional lines like Jacob’s Cream Crackers, Twiglets, Club and Tuc into hard sales while building on the success of new lines like Thai Bites, its phenomenally successful range of rice crackers launched in 2001.

Elsarky joined the £150m turnover Danone subsidiary in January from Kellogg in Australia where he was managing director. Few at Jacob’s knew what to make of the Egyptian who collected stamps and was fanatical about Aussie football when he arrived. But it did not take long for Elsarky to work out what Jacob’s was all about.

“The cream cracker was almost an icon in this country. I went in to get my National Insurance number and the woman asked me where I worked,” he says in his hybrid English accent - he was born in Egypt and moved to Australia in 1972.

“I mentioned Jacob’s and she said that she ate them because they were really healthy. I realised the potential.”

He also realised it was no minor undertaking. “We needed to take a brand that was locally strong and increase its relevance to consumers,” he says. “The brand was known mainly by those who’d grown up with it.”

Put bluntly, the company needed to generate a younger consumer base. And it needed to be leaner and meaner to do it. Jacob’s has some 400 SKUs in its portfolio and Elsarky reveals that a review is underway to identify those no longer core. “We are rationalising the portfolio and asking if all these SKUs play a positive role or whether some have outlived their usefulness,” he says, refusing however to be drawn prematurely on the review’s outcome.

The review is part of a wider attempt by Danone to refocus the UK business and, says Elsarky, he is targeting two areas in particular. “We need to focus on areas we can bring core competencies to bear and and there’s a definite move [among consumers] to more convenience snacking and healthier eating.”

In a bid to capture both, Elsarky has stepped up the company’s two-pronged strategy to develop new snacks aimed at younger convenience driven consumers and to boost more established brands through a mixture of sharper marketing and reinvigorated branding.

Thai Bites passed the £5m sales mark just eight months after launch, allowing Danone to recoup its £4m marketing investment in under a year. Last month, the company crossed its fingers for a similar results from JacoBites, a new range of bite-sized snacking crackers in tandoori, pizza and BBQ flavours, that Elsarky hopes will tap into the growing popularity of snacks for sharing at home.

Jacob’s has committed £5m to support the JacoBites brand over the next 18 months and the early performance indicators are already encouraging. In the first fortnight they outperformed Thai Bites, thanks in part to a sampling programme that will have taken the product to some three million people throughout the country by the end of next month. The television advertising campaign hits the screens after Christmas.

Elsarky reveals that in the next two months another snack “in the core area of crackers” will be launched.

The company also intends to promote the healthy eating message more forcefully. “We’ve set ourselves up to be more proactive in the area of nutrition,” confirms Elsarky, citing the company’s salt reduction policy and research into trans-fatty acids. He adds: “It’s our responsibility as manufacturers to provide consumers with a range of products and disclose exactly what is in them. We have already corrected the profile of some foods, but that is not yet reflected in the labelling.”

The business faces challenges ahead, not least the threat posed by supermarket own label brands. Elsarky is confident, however, that its heightened emphasis on quality and innovation will drive it forward. “Private labels can exist and not hit a category as long as that category is innovating,” he says. Jacob’s would be crackers not to.