Spreading the love (and hate): Marmite’s Gene Project

How do you build on a comms campaign that’s part of the national psyche? One suggestion: tap into the obsession with our genetic heritage…

I am a fussy eater. Apparently, I wasn’t when I was a kid. Then I must have suffered some sort of palate-altering trauma and I’ve never been the same since.

So, it’s not too unusual to hear me say that I hate a certain food – peas, for example. And I’m willing to bet that there is at least one food that you hate, too.

But, should anyone say to you ‘You either love it or hate it’, there is only one food that springs to mind. When, in 1996, Unilever took the surprising decision to shout about how half the population hated its yeast-based spread, Marmite, the team at DDB who devised the campaign could hardly have anticipated how it would enter the national psyche.

The story goes that two members of the creative team disagreed over the virtues of the product – one loving it, one hating it – and the rest is history. Now the tag line is so firmly a part of British culture that 15 years after the campaign first aired The Guardian ran a story describing Marmite as “the reality TV of the food world: basically disgusting but unusually good at commanding column inches”.

It’s not easy to follow such a legendary marketing-communications triumph, but the team behind the yeasty spread has recently given it a go.

GENE GENIUS?

Testing DNA is all the rage. More than 1.5 million AncestryDNA testing kits were sold in the few days between Black Friday and Cyber Monday in 2017. There were even concerns as to whether the firm would be able to meet the demand.

These kits let you know where your great-great-grandparents came from and help satisfy the sense of rootlessness and isolation that commuting on the Northern Line can bring.

This trend prompted creative agency adam&eveDDB to ask whether there was any science behind why Marmite was so famously polarising. Scientists had, after all, previously found links between human genetics and a preference for bitter-tasting foods such as Brussels sprouts and broccoli.

London-based genetics-testing centre DNAFit was commissioned to conduct a study and found there was indeed a connection between your genes and whether you’re a Marmite lover or hater.

The adverts that followed in September 2017 were classic 21st-century TV: a family scene; one lover, one hater. This time, however, in a clever twist, the Marmite-tasters were actually told whether or not they enjoyed the spread. The campaign (supported by a 90-second film) launched with a TV ‘roadblock’ across 120 channels during Saturday night prime-time viewing.

SPREADING RECOGNITION

While it’s the adverts that stick in the memory, this campaign had all the bases covered. “This was a fully integrated campaign, including social, advertorial, creative, design and PR platforms,” says Grace Henwood, associate director at W Communications, which led on the public relations work.

The aim was to make the headlines before the adverts hit. “From a PR perspective, we began by publishing DNAFit’s research findings via a white paper released to the scientific community. We also worked with lead scientist Thomas Roos to produce a short film that outlined the science behind the story in a digestible format.”

Marmite then made DNA testing kits available on its website so that potential punters could, essentially, ‘try before they buy’, testing their genetic make-up to decide whether the flavour was for them.

While this might sound like a lot of effort to decide whether or not to buy a £2 jar of spread, it tied in with Marmite’s own research showing an ageing consumer base: “As many as 20% of Marmite-hating parents wouldn’t let their families try it, opting instead for higher-priced and sweet-tasting alternatives,” says Henwood. It was hoped that the test would enable younger individuals to consider their personal preferences.

“We worked with top-tier journalists and influencers to gift them a Marmite gene-testing kit that would enable them to test their genes for themselves and find out if they were born a lover or a hater. We shared a total of 40 gene-testing kits with our influencers and media,” adds Henwood.

THE TECH FACTOR

To avoid alienating those unwilling to buy an £89.99 kit, Marmite turned to phrenology. The TasteFace portal uses facial-recognition software and a webcam to determine whether people are born lovers or haters by the face they pull when eating Marmite on toast.

“The portal enabled everyone to join in the national Marmite conversation,” says Henwood.

To drive awareness, influencers and celebrities were invited (in both an organic and paid capacity) to try out the portal. Marmite’s digital agency, AnalogFolk, led on social execution.

The core objective of the Marmite Gene Project was to revitalise the ‘love it or hate it’ idea. As Philippa Atkinson, brand manager for Marmite at Unilever, says: “With TasteFace, we are encouraging the British public to try Marmite, butter their toast and discover their fate – are they lovers or haters? We know that some people have written off Marmite in the past, so innovations like TasteFace, while fun, also serve a real purpose, by encouraging people to give it a go.”

LOVE IT, HATE IT, MEASURE IT

The original 1996 Marmite campaign arrested five years of stagnating sales and developed a concrete brand identity.

Harvard Business Review reported in 2011 that the campaign had been directly responsible for growth of around 5% each year for the next five years.

So how did the new campaign do? When Sky News Sunrise dedicates a four-minute segment to your campaign, and cult youth channel UNILAD Grub creates a dedicated video to be shared on Instagram, it’s fair to say the Marmite Gene Project has had an impact.

“It was brilliant. Topical, edgy and funny,” says Adam Leyland, editor of The Grocer.

“The edginess comes from its ambiguity. The scripts can be read on one level as a reference to simple medical diagnosis but hint at diagnosis on a more complex basis in terms of sexuality, infidelity and other hidden secrets.”

W Communications says that Marmite saw a 60% sales spike at Tesco, with other retailers seeing a sales uplift of 11%.

And it’s claimed that Marmite saw its greatest increase in awareness from a single campaign, from 3% to 12%; more than 50,000 people are said to have been prompted to trial Marmite through sampling. The team behind the campaign says the testing approach will underpin Marmite communications for the foreseeable future.

THE BACKLASH

But New Scientist writers Jacob Aron, Tim Revell and Michael Marshall were less than impressed. “I’ve just received the dumbest press release of my life, but it’s embargoed until midnight tonight so I can’t even mock it properly,” tweeted Marshall; others broke the embargo in the subsequent Twitter chat, earning a handful of retweets and likes

Journalists moaning about press releases isn’t new. But the next day, New Scientist ran an online article headlined ‘No, your genes don’t determine whether you love or hate Marmite’.

New Scientist has more than 3.4 million Twitter followers and is probably the best-known scientific magazine in the UK. The article, written by Marshall, poked holes in the research and said that it was “just doing a quick bit of genetic testing in a bid to score some headlines”.

“My only disappointment is the ad claiming there’s science,” says Leyland. “As a spoof it’s brilliant, and that’s the way I interpreted the ad. If it’s trying to make a serious point, it loses the point.”

Not exactly positive PR, but did the team at W Communications worry that this would derail the campaign before it had begun?

No. “The campaign was always intended to spark debate and conversation around the existence of the genetic link we have to the taste of Marmite,” says Henwood. “It was great to see that both sides of the debate were represented and that the campaign stimulated conversation around born lovers and haters. We were overwhelmed by the positive sentiment that dominated the conversation around the campaign.”

Developing cheerleaders among the science press was never the point; the campaign’s target audience was those who hadn’t tried Marmite – or, in Henwood’s words, “not had the opportunity to realise their true potential as a Marmite fan”.

The sheer fun of the idea, as well as the special relationship that Marmite has with its customers, made the campaign what it was. As Henwood says: “The joy of working with a brand that is so identifiable and so well known is that the scope to be creative is vast. We don’t have to focus on trial and awareness, but rather on communicating the brand personality that makes Marmite so loved and relatable, in a fun and unique way every time.”


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A version of this article was originally published in Influence magazine, Q2 2018.

Image courtesy of flickr user Pleuntje

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