Like many iconic British brands, Burton’s has its roots in the 19th century, when George Burton began baking biscuits in Leek, Staffordshire in the mid 1800s.

His grandson Joseph founded Burton’s Biscuits in 1935, after which the company’s brands, including Maryland Cookies, Jammie Dodgers and Wagon Wheels, grew to become household staples. The current Burton’s Biscuit Company was formed in 2000 following the merger of Horizon Biscuit Company and Burton’s Gold Medal Biscuits, before the company was bought by Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan in 2013.

Simon Browne, Burton’s Biscuit Company’s Managing Director, spoke to Grocery Trader about current trends in the biscuit market and how biscuits will provide consumers with an affordable treat during the recession.

Can you tell us about how long you’ve been at Burton’s and where you worked previously?

I have been with Burton’s for 5 years now, previously I have worked across a number of FMCG businesses including Cadbury, Mondelez, Reckitt Benckiser and GSK.

These have been a challenging for months for us all. How has the biscuits category fared, and Burton’s in particular?

The biscuit category has fared well over the last 3 months and is up 8%. The growth during the initial lock down phase was very significant as stockpiling occurred but came back to more average levels. However, the big change we saw was the mix of products that consumers purchased. There was a move into the more traditional “round and brown” biscuits, Rich Tea, Digestives etc, whilst the healthier biscuits such as Belvita, Fibre one and cereal bars were significantly down as consumers searched for treats that could feed the entire family at home.

Have you managed to keep all your bakeries operational and, if so, how challenging has it been?

From the very start of the crisis we set ourselves three objectives:

1. Keep our employees safe.

2. Ensure continuity of supply of biscuits to the UK.

3. Long term sustainability of our business and the employees that depend on us.

Our employees are amazing, whilst there was a lot of fear and anxiety of the unknown they worked incredibly hard as we implemented social distancing, adapting to new processes and protocols to ensure they were safe. We managed to keep our bakeries operational throughout and as a result we were able to donate a significant number of biscuits to the wonderful NHS, key workers and those who are vulnerable.

What are the main trends in the biscuit category that retailers need to be aware of?

We have seen some major shifts in buying habits since COVID, some of which may be short term whilst we are in lockdown to some degree, others may be long term. For example, during lockdown we have seen that the out of home consumption occasion has disappeared. This has significantly impacted Breakfast biscuits and cereal bars where the eating on the go occasion has seen massive decline, along with treats after school or after sports and activity clubs. Whilst we are undoubtedly heading into a recession where shoppers are looking to treat themselves with indulgent biscuits such as Thomas Fudge’s rather than spend the money going out, they will also have to make the shopping budget stretch further, buying larger packs of biscuits at a great price for the entire family.

As most biscuits are sweet, how do you respond to critics who say you are contributing to a rise in unhealthy eating/childhood obesity?

Burton’s Biscuits has shown leadership in driving permissible snacking since the PHE guidelines were launched in 2015. Since then we have worked relentlessly to remove 20% of sugar from our biscuits and managed portion sizes. We were the first major biscuit manufacturer to ensure that all our biscuits that were targeted at children were below 100 calories per serving in line with the government’s guidelines of two snacks under 100 calories per day.

We have a product roadmap which will deliver further reductions in sugar levels and calories across our entire portfolio, and a commitment to support our shoppers in finding fun and affordable ways to keep their kids and families active.

You recently purchased Thomas Fudge’s and Paterson Arran. Why and how has the integration gone of those companies into Burton’s?

I am proud to say that both businesses are now part of the Burton’s family. Their brands and capabilities bring a richness of possibilities for future innovation. The integration has gone extremely well, with us now fully integrated.

Are you planning to acquire other companies? If so, will you look beyond biscuits?

We continue to look at the biscuit market for opportunities to enhance our offer to our consumers and customers. If the opportunities for acquisition are not there we will look to invest internally in new capabilities and capacity. We would not look beyond biscuits, however as part of the Paterson acquisition we acquired a Jam and Chutney facility that is excellent and full of opportunities.

You produce some of the UK’s most popular biscuit brands, but the market is becoming ever more competitive and boundaries with other categories are blurring. How do you manage your portfolio against such a backdrop?

Fortunately, our brands are some of the most iconic biscuit brands in the UK and are a must stock for our customers. However, we are seeing range reductions across many of the retailers. This has been accelerated during COVID and they are seeing that they can operate with smaller ranges. Therefore, NPD needs to enhance the category, through offering differentiation, disruption and have a clear usage occasion. No longer can limited editions or just new flavours cut it, it must bring excitement to the shopper and consumer.

You recently announced a major re-brand of Jammie Dodgers and a return to vegan-friendly status. Was that in part a response to pressure from consumers?

There is clearly a demand for vegan biscuits, we were not prepared to move to vegan until we could develop a recipe that was as good if not better than the current recipe. The development team has cracked it and we are delighted to become a vegan-friendly biscuit once again. The branding is exciting and reflects the quality, cheeky personality and naturalness of Jammie Dodgers.

We hear there are plans to run a major on-pack on your Minis portfolio. Can you tell us more?

I am really excited about this, Maryland Minis are a jewel in the crown of Maryland. Personally, this is my favourite biscuit – great tasting, portion controlled and under 100 calories!

Maryland Minis are a destination biscuit for key occasions throughout the day. Ranging from lunch box, to after school, post a football match or just a mid- morning snack for kids on the go. As part of our long term commitment to promoting portion controlled biscuits as part of a healthy balanced diet, we have developed our ‘Minis Get Moving’ strategy. As part of this strategy we are helping our shoppers to keep their kids and families active via an on pack promotion which will give them the opportunity to win a range of active prizes and gadgets, such as fitbits for kids, to free family activity vouchers.

This on pack promotion will be timed to coincide with the Back To School occasion.

You recently launched Maryland Sugar Free biscuits. Has that been successful?

Yes it has, we launched it 2 years ago as we were passionate about providing a delicious Maryland Cookie option for those looking for a sugar free treat. It also enables those with health issues that cannot have sugar to be able to treat themselves. From a brand-building perspective, it’s worth noting that 60% of Maryland Sugar Free buyers are incremental to the brand.

Whilst focusing specifically on your brands, can you answer the burning question: Have Wagon Wheels got smaller in recent times?!

No, your hands have just got bigger!

Are you doing much to support brands in the Thomas Fudge’s/Paterson Arran portfolio?

We have strong marketing campaigns planned to support both these brands over the next 12 months as well as an exciting pipeline of innovation.

Our Thomas Fudge’s campaign will be mainly digital, targeting consumers who agree with our brand philosophy that ‘Life is too short for the mediocre’. At a time when shoppers are looking for affordable ways of treating themselves, both the Thomas Fudge’s Savoury and Sweet ranges help to reinforce the point that shoppers are treating their friends and families to the very best quality. Paterson’s, the UK’s favourite shortbread brand, is 125 years old in 2020 and we are proud to be celebrating the Scottish heritage of the brand.

We read that people’s shopping habits/way of life may never be the same again. How does that affect Burton’s?

Certainly, during lockdown we have seen a significant increase in footfall into the major multiples, fewer bigger shopping trolleys and an increase in online shopping.

As the lockdown unwinds, we believe that online grocery shopping will remain at higher than previous levels and we remain focussed on ensuring that the shopper journey is as effective as possible, so that Burton’s biscuit buyers can find their favourite products.

As recession impacts on our economy, we will find that shoppers are looking for the reassurance of familiar brands coupled with great value and our portfolio is well positioned to meet their needs. Do you think biscuits as a category is as relevant today as it used to be?

Absolutely, especially as we enter into a period of recession. Previous experience shows us that in recession consumers are looking for affordable treats, either for everyday moments of ‘time out’ or special treats to either share or to indulge in a moment of me-time.

Biscuits are well positioned to meet these key occasions, as well as being affordable, convenient and permissible vs adjacent categories.

If you had one over-arching message for your trade customers, what would it be?

Over the past 12 weeks we have clearly seen demand for biscuits drive the category into growth as they meet shoppers’ desire for affordable, everyday snacks, treats and desserts suitable for the needs of all the family. As we face recession, we will undoubtedly see the demand maintained as pressure upon people’s discretionary spend will continue, with shoppers looking to benefit from the quality and affordability of the category.

At the same time, we are also likely to see shoppers buying into established brands as they will provide a level of reassurance regarding quality. Burton’s Biscuits is proud to have a portfolio that spans both everyday and special occasions across sweet and savoury categories and is well placed to meet the demands of both the retailers and shoppers alike.

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