In his first interview since McCain won the Queen's Award for Enterprise in April for its lower fat HomeFries range, MD Nick Vernon explains why he is out to convince not only existing consumers but also non-chip eaters of the health merits of the humble chip.
"Chips always come under criticism [from healthy eating bodies]. But consumers don't realise how low in fat ovenable chips are they're less than 5% fat. A whole lot of these so-called healthy cereals are 10% to 20% fat," he says defiantly.
"We do need to have the debate on health issues, but it has to be a sensible grown-up debate that gets to the facts and doesn't just pander to those with the strongest views on the other side of the fence. We have an educational job to do and it's a slow burn."
And, over the next few months, Vernon, who claims he happily feeds his kids all the company's products, will be pushing the low fat content message about McCain's products more proactively in the increasingly polarised debate about healthy eating. As the issue rides up the social and political agenda, McCain will have a real challenge on its hands. It currently controls nearly 50% of the fries market it built pretty much singlehandedly after the company founded its UK arm in 1968. It remains the only big name brand in the frozen chip category, boasting that it produces one in three pre-prepared home-cooked chips consumed in the UK and is the third largest frozen food company in the UK.
Vernon, MD for five years, is fully aware that its market share will come under increasing pressure. Over the past few years own labels have poured into the category without the brand equity of McCain and with the huge advantage of being cheaper. But, he argues: "The market driver has been fundamentally the same for the past 15 years the need for greater convenience. And people are willing to pay for it. A subsidiary trend is that British customers are getting much more demanding in terms of the breadth of taste they expect."
If McCain can beat own brands on convenience and quality, it will stay ahead of the game, he believes. Effective marketing is critical, he adds, citing the recent Light bulb' TV ad campaign, in which a young woman is preparing to oven cook her fries when she sees an ad on television with a builder popping his into the fryer.
"There are a large number of consumers who still haven't been converted to the wonders of oven chips. They only discover, when they try HomeFries, what a fantastic product it is."
Vernon is confident that the company's track record in innovation will stand it in good stead. McCain took the technology to new heights when it launched its latest range of premium, low fat HomeFries oven chips in 1997. Its challenge was to deliver crispness without dehydration and with the "nifty technology", the company came up with a chip coated in an "invisible" batter a wheat flour starch coating specifically developed in and for the British market.
A key plank of McCain's recent strategy has been to diversify into microwaveable foods and not only chips. As part of its new Micro snacks collection, it introduced pizzas four years ago and Toasties with ham and cheese and chilli fillings last year. This month, it added cheese and onion to its Toasties range and Chinese and Tikka varieties to its Micro Chicken Wings range. Its Micro Pizza range had new packaging designed to simplify the cooking process.
"We've been synonymous with making microwave food accessible," claims Vernon. But, he insists, there will not be any fancy food. "The market will be smaller than the ovenable market, so we're concentrating on popular high volume opportunities like the cheese and onion, and chilli fillings for Toasties."
The team is road testing a number of new snacks, all under wraps. "You think of a snack food and we've probably got it in the development programme," boasts Vernon. And, he promises, the emphasis will be on quality. "There have been too many attempts to produce microwaveable frozen food where the quality has not been as good as it ought to have been," he reasons.
New potato dishes are in the pipeline. "We've always been favourite for chips but we've not done as good a job as we might have on potato specialities," he admits. McCain is beginning to make up lost ground with the recent launch of products like Hash Browns, Potato Wedges and Potato Rosti, boosting market share from 3% to 25% in this category. But"there is still a long way to go", he says.
The McCain team is also working on products aimed at children or suitable for family meals, and venturing into more adult oriented products like the Potato Rosti it launched 18 months ago. "It brought a whole lot of new people into the category," says Vernon.
However, he admits: "There have been no eureka moments with adult food yet and with the cost of launching new products, it is foolish to take unnecessary risks."
He cites the launch of thick microwaveable chips, which foundered on price. "The whole issue of what consumers are prepared to pay for this sort of food is a huge one and certainly a problem for innovation."
He continues: "We're always looking at developments in cooking methods like combination ovens for instance. But the dilemma is that you're not likely to get a product listed until there are a significant number of ovens in the market, but without the products, you're not going to sell the ovens so there is always a risk involved."
The threat facing McCain is not that whole regiments of the public will suddenly desert their crispy-coated friends. Healthy or not, the nation's affection is a resilient one. As Vernon says: "Not many people don't eat chips. Household penetration is over 80%. There are few categories with higher penetration in terms of frozen food."
The real threat is own label brands eating into an already saturated market. Is Vernon worried that he will run out of ideas? "For 20 years people have asked what more can we do with the chip," he scoffs. "But there is a continuous process of development. The key issue is ensuring we have the quality of innovation that will overcome the hurdles put in the way of developing new products."