Exclusive research reveals the brands that shoppers think define British grocery - and despite all the patriotic fervour this year, they’re not very British

Three weeks ago, The Grocer’s annual survey of Britain’s Biggest Grocery Brands once again crowned Coca-Cola the biggest brand in UK fmcg. Coke’s sales speak for themselves - the soft drinks brand generated a whopping £1.5bn in 2011, staying comfortably ahead of its nearest rivals.

But while sales stats are arguably the most conclusive way of measuring a brand’s success, they are only part of the story. Another crucial element is what consumers think. And, judging by the findings of a Harris Interactive survey carried out exclusively for The Grocer, the brands Joe Public believes are defining British grocery aren’t necessarily the ones raking in the biggest bucks - or indeed even British.

When asked to name - unprompted - what they thought was Britain’s biggest food or drink brand, the 1,200 consumers surveyed identified nearly 100 different brands, from well-known fmcg heavyweights to names that barely registered on The Grocer’s list of Britain’s Biggest Grocery Brands.

Despite the wide range of answers, there was one clear winner - Heinz. The US-owned beans-to-soup giant was cited by 15.2% of consumers, making it Britain’s biggest food brand by popular vote. Heinz secured the win even though on paper the combined sales of its beans, soups, ketchup, pasta and WeightWatchers meals businesses still leave it trailing behind Coca-Cola.

We also asked consumers to name Britain’s most icononic food and drink items and, again, Heinz did well - alongside Coca-Cola, it was one of only two brands to make the cut both in the top five biggest brands and the top five iconic food and drink items, coming fourth behind fish & chips, tea and the roast dinner.

Consumers crowned Tesco the second-biggest name in UK food and drink, making it the only retailer to be ranked in our consumer top five.

Interestingly, consumers recognised Unilever as a top five brand ahead of any of the individual brands in its portfolio, which includes British icons such as Marmite and PG Tips. In recent years, the manufacturer has taken to promoting its own umbrella brand alongside its individual brands, and its strong performance in our survey suggests this strategy is paying dividends.

However, British-owned Warburtons and Hovis - the UK’s second-biggest and fifth-biggest grocery brands by value sales [Britain’s Biggest Grocery Brands] - failed to make our consumer top five, although both scored well on Britishness elsewhere in our survey, with the vast majority of consumers recognising both brands’ British credentials.

Shrinking British ownership

Britain’s Biggest Grocery Brands showed that the number of British-owned food and drink brands continues to shrink - just 44 of the UK’s 150 biggest grocery brands remain in UK hands. We posited at the time that sales appeared to be unaffected by these changes in ownership, and this is borne out by our consumer survey. Consumers tell us “Britishness” is not a key factor in their purchasing decisions, with quality and price winning out over Britishness by a country mile. Half of all shoppers claim quality is the most important criterion when buying food and drink, with 40% caring most about price. Just 10% of shoppers say Britishness is the most important factor when deciding which food and drink to buy, and UK ownership hardly factors at all - only 2% of consumers say they look for British-owned companies when shopping for groceries, compared with 4% who want to know their food was made with British-grown ingredients, and a further 4% who care most about whether the food and drink they buy was manufactured on UK soil.

Where Britishness does matter

Although British credentials don’t factor highly in consumer purchasing decisions overall, they are an important consideration in certain specific food and drink categories (see page 48). This is particularly true of fresh foods - when asked for which food and drink buying British was most important to them, 34% of consumers named meat, fish or poultry, followed by fruit & veg (17%) and eggs (12%). British credentials were deemed least important in alcoholic drinks, with 28% of shoppers saying alcoholic beverages (excluding beer) was the category in which Britishness mattered the least, with a further 15% naming beer.

With the importance of Britishness seemingly focused on primary produce, changes in ownership elsewhere - such as the recent takeover of Cadbury by Kraft - rarely result in consumers switching to different, British-owned products.

Overall, just 13% of the general population claim they deliberately stopped buying certain food and drinks products because the British company that produced them was taken over by a foreign company. However, interestingly, when it comes to those who do, men are more likely to switch allegiance, with 16% saying they would change their purchasing habits after a takeover compared with 10% of women. There are also significant geographical variations - 22% of London shoppers say they stopped buying products because of a change in ownership, but just 4% of those in the North East did.

Our apparent nonchalance towards Britishness constrasts starkly with the patriotism shown by consumers in other countries, says Simon Clough, global marketing director at brand consultancy Clear, which recently carried out brand research with consumers in the UK, Germany and the UK.

“In Germany and - to a certain extent - the US, consumers seem to have retrenched to brands that reflect key national attributes, particularly since the recession,” he says. “That’s quite an interesting contrast to what we’re seeing in the UK, where consumers are more interested in other brand attributes, such as quirkiness or a sense of fun - regardless of whether those brands happen to be British or not.”

That isn’t to say British credentials aren’t appealing to British consumers, but they have to be about more than a narrowly parochial message. “People often try to promote Britishness as ‘traditional’, without offering a fresh, modern interpretation of what ‘British’ means,” he says. “British brands shouldn’t sweep their Britishness under the carpet, but they need to think hard about kind of Britishness they want to celebrate.”

Consumers may be looking for non-traditional interpretations of Britishness from brands, but when it comes to deciding which British foods and drinks are most “iconic”, traditionalism still appears to be the order of the day. When we asked consumers which food and drink items define British eating culture, fish & chips was the clear winner, garnering nearly 20% of the popular vote. This was followed by two further traditional British culinary institutions - the cup of tea and the roast dinner.

To drill further into how consumers perceive Britishness, we gave them a list of branded heavyweights - Hovis, Warburtons, Walkers, Colman’s mustard, Cadbury, Heinz Baked Beanz, HP sauce, Marmite and Carling - and asked them which of these they considered “British”, whether because they were launched in the UK, have a long history of being sold in the UK or are currently under British ownership. We then also asked them, more specifically, which they thought were manufactured in the UK.

The results differed considerably across different age groups.Hovis, for example, was deemed to be British by 75% of all consumers but managed to convince just 55% of 16 to 24-year-olds of its British credentials. It did much better with those aged 45 and over, with 83% of consumers in that age group saying the brand was British. It’s a similar story for rival bread giant Warburtons - across the general population, 71% believe the brand to be British, but just 57% of those aged 16 to 24 do.

In fact, of the nine brands we selected, it was PepsiCo-owned Walkers that best managed to convey its British credentials to young people - 71% of 16 to 24-year-olds said the crisps brand was British, as did 75% of 25 to 34-year-olds. Cadbury was the second-most British brand in young people’s eyes, with 68% of those aged 16 to 24 considering it British compared with 59% across the general population.

Age gap

Walkers’ strong performance on Britishness among young people might suggest the brand’s strategy of highlighting its 100% British sourcing record on potatoes is striking the right chord with its core demographic. However, young consumers consider the brand to be British even though many do not actually believe its crisps are made in the UK - just 49% of 16 to 24-year-olds said Walkers was UK-made, compared with 70% of the general population.

There was a similar - albeit smaller - gap between perceptions of Britishness and British-made for Cadbury, with only 55% of the youngest consumers believing the chocolate giant produces its wares in the UK, but 68% nevertheless saying the brand was British.

By contrast, opinions on whether brands are British appear for older demographics to be more closely tied to the place of manufacture. Hovis and Warburtons, for example, scored highly on Britishness among those 45 and older, and the vast majority of those consumers (84% for Hovis and 76% for Warburtons) also believe the bread brands are manufactured in the UK.

Younger shoppers were also typically more forgiving of foreign ownership of British brands. When we asked consumers how they felt about Cadbury being taken over by Kraft, 70.5% of those aged 45 and older said they disapproved, but just 55% of 16 to 35-year-olds found the takeover problematic. Nearly half (47%) of 16 to 24-year-olds said they didn’t mind either way, and 10% registered their outright approval for the deal.

By comparison, just 24% of those 55 and older said they neither approved nor disapproved, and only 2% said they approved.

Awareness levels of the Cadbury/Kraft deal were generally high , with just 8% of consumers saying they were not aware Cadbury had been taken over - ranging from 12% for 16 to 24-year-olds to 5% for the over-55s.

Foreign takeovers of British companies are always accompanied by grumbles - there is no denying that the nation’s self esteem takes a knock when a well-established British name changes into foreign ownership. But the sheer range of brands - both UK- and foreign-owned - that were deemed to be among Britain’s biggest food and drinks brands by consumers in our survey suggests that British food and drink remains a very broad church. And with younger shoppers apparently less concerned about ownership details when assessing Britishness, our definition of what constitutes a great British food and drinks brand may become yet more accommodating in the future.