Hamish Thomson likes his gum. Within seconds of finishing this interview, he is unwrapping a piece of Extra and popping it in his mouth. Wrigley’s UK general manager has just finished a coffee and - in line with an oral hygiene philosophy that has helped turn around the company’s UK gum business in recent years - is using gum to clean his mouth.

‘Eat, drink chew’ is Extra’s mantra, and it is hard to overstate how much it has done for a gum market where Wrigley accounts for 90.6% of value sales [Nielsen 52w/e 1 December 2012]. Extra makes up 65.8% of this alone - making it the third-largest brand in the portfolio of Wrigley owner Mars.

Sales of Extra were in decline just a few years ago, before a renewed focus on core mint flavours and oral health - the brand is backed by the British Dental Association and advertised in 10,000 dental surgeries across the UK - started the turnaround that saw sales rise 11.6% year-on-year to £172.2m [Nielsen 52 w/e 13 October 2012].

But Thomson - who headed Wrigley’s Pacific operation, which includes New Zealand, before taking up the equivalent UK role just over a year ago - says eat, drink, chew is still in its infancy.

“It is not replacing the toothbrush - and never will - but it is complimentary,” he says. “We are definitely not a mature market, there is still a big education programme to be done - healthy confectionery is of growing importance to the market.”

Thomson cites the example of Finland - which has one of the highest per capita rates of chewing gum consumption - and where consumers are encouraged by schools, the government and dentists to chew sugar-free gum after every time they eat or drink.

Hamish Thomson
Age: 42
Family: Married with three children
Education: Graduated in business studies, marketing and commercial law at Massey University, New Zealand
Career highlights: 2008-2011: Vice president and managing director, Wrigley Pacific
2005-2008: marketing/sales director, Wrigley Pacific
2000-2005: marketing director, Mars Petcare Australia/New Zealand
1993-99: Marketing communications director, Reebok Europe (Netherlands), Reebok UK
Favourite gum flavour: Peppermint
Favourite thing about the UK: Cynical nature of Brits - fits with my personality
Misses most about New Zealand: All Black captain Richie McCaw - NZ girls want to be with him, NZ boys want to be him.
Last movie seen: Rerun of Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Last book read: The Climb (about 1996 Everest disaster)
Blackberry, iPhone or Android? Blackberry

He adds that more people are beginning to appreciate the benefits of chewing to dental health, and believes this has helped to offset negative feelings parents might have about their children chewing gum. A father of three, he is happy for his own children to do so.

Eat, drink, chew is a concept close to Thomson’s heart. Born and raised in New Zealand, he worked in advertising before moving into marketing and sales roles, and oversaw the creation of the Food Creatures oral health ad campaign used to promote Extra in the UK. But despite his passion for the concept, he believes oral health is only one route to growth for gum.

He also excited about the concept of “mental renewal and mood management” - using gum to help stimulate mental activity. This was aired last year in the UK when the company launched a push for Airwaves that billed it as a “pocket pick-me-up” that could give consumers an “invigorating mental kick”. There is still huge potential in this area, says Thomson, who said research has shown chewing can bring a 20% increase in blood flow to the brain and aid concentration and alertness.

“There are enormous opportunities for chewing as thinking, chewing as chilling or chewing as revving,” he adds.

A third concept for growing the market is the idea that chewing can aid in slimming. Thomson is careful to point out that he is not making any health claims, but the company is examining how gum can be positioned as a snack, and how chewing might help to suppress the appetite.

“It will never be something we would make overt health claims around but right now gum is seen as an alternative snack occasion,” he says. “It is very early days, but gum is such an expandable opportunity.”

The idea of chewing to stay thin will seem outlandish to some - but is positively mundane compared with what went on at Wrigley’s UK manufacturing site, in Plymouth, when Heston Blumenthal paid a visit. Thomson said the chef, who was filming for TV series Heston’s Fantastical Food, learned just how tricky the art of gum-making was - though, to be fair, he was attempting to create a roast dinner in chewing gum form.

Blumenthal may have failed in his efforts - but he picked a lovely spot for it.

Wrigley’s factory is set in 40 acres of land backing onto Dartmoor and boasts the sort of views rarely seen from a manufacturing plant. At one point during our interview, Thomson pauses to point out a herd of deer milling yards from the factory - they are semi-regular visitors who come down from the moor.

Plymouth produces all the Wrigley gum - including Extra, Airwaves, Five, Orbit and Hubba Bubba - sold across Europe. One factory ‘associate’ (a term everyone at Wrigley is careful to use in reference to colleagues) proudly informed me the site can produce about 60,000 pellets of gum a minute.

Thomson is also clearly proud of the factory - visited by the Queen two years ago to mark its 40th anniversary - and of its 300-strong workforce. The average length of service at Plymouth is 17 years, and one member of staff will soon be marking 40 years of Wrigley employment.

Thomson is a familiar figure at the plant - he makes the trip from his office in Theale, near Reading, about once a week - and appears to know everyone we pass on the shop floor.

But Thomson hasn’t invited The Grocer to Cornwall to admire his people skills, or even the local wildlife. We are here to see the factory’s bottling line - and the space marked out on the floor where Wrigley is preparing to install a second.

For the bottle format has been identified by Wrigley as a massive opportunity for gum in the UK - and the company is putting its money where its mouth is.

“Thirty per cent of occasions for gum use are in a car or office environment and this format will tap directly into this opportunity,” he says. Thomson adds that about 25% of volume sales in Germany and China are driven by the bottle format, and that grocery store gum displays in China, in particular, are a “wall of bottles”.

Wrigley is hoping to boost UK gum volumes with the launch of a range of bottle packs containing 46 gum pellets. Though it is not the company’s first foray into the bottle format - it already sells a pack of 60 pellets for around £2.60 - Thomson is confident the smaller bottle and £1.99 price tag will hit the mark with Brits. Confident enough to predict retail sales of £12m from the new format - and to have spent millions on installing that second production line and buying TV and promotional support.

The new bottle format will be used for Extra and Airwaves - Wrigley’s two strongest gum brands. But what of the rest of its range, the likes of Orbit or Five, which are down 14% and 21.9% year-on-year in value sales respectively?

“There is 100% a role for other brands in the portfolio - the Fives and the Hubba Bubbas,” insists Thomson, “but it is a matter of getting prioritisation right and this strategy has returned the category to growth.”

He adds that Five is a huge brand in Australia, and hopes to boost its fortunes in the UK this year with the launch of a smaller pack format - seven sticks rather than the current 12 - that will bring with it a drop in price from £1.02 to 59p. “Five brings in a lot of incremental consumers - particularly teens. It will never be the biggest brand but it offers retailers good margins and brings new users in.”

Looking further ahead, Wrigley has researchers - including a dedicated Wrigley Science Institute in Chicago - examining a range of potential opportunities and influences on the business. These include the future of the tobacco industry, ingredients such as sweetener xylitol - said to have dental health benefits - and the aforementioned weight loss.

Selling cynical Brits the concept of chewing gum as a slimming aid? That could take some bottle.