My Life in Yellow Fats

From the Brand Historian’s Timeline: 1886

It’s often said that the secret of a successful career in brand consulting lies in amassing deep knowledge of a category for which constantly job-hopping clients are prepared to pay a premium. And that’s certainly true in the case of my career. I once joked that my Mastermind specialist subject would be ‘The history of the cooking sauces market, 1972 to the present day.’ I travelled the world fixing the problems of ailing and failing Pilsner lagers, and if I am ever tempted to write my autobiography, I think the subtitle would have to be ‘My Life in Yellow Fats.’

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Yellow fats: what a gloriously unappetizing piece of marketing twaddle. We are, of course, referring here to the label marketing people use for the beige to ochre stuff we like spread on our toast, improve our sandwiches or help bake our Lemon Drizzle cakes.

My connexion with yellow fats started as a lad growing up in the West Midlands in the 1960s with Lurpak (First launched in 1901). Lurpak is a lactic, salty style of butter in silver foil which has its origins with the Danish farmers of Arla whose ancestors had originally paid us a visit in longboats, played their lurs and overran the Northern Anglo-Saxon kingdoms plundering our gold and bequeathing us many things, including a taste for salty butter.

It was much later in my business career that I suddenly found myself a bystander in the great battle that was taking place between the forces of dairy and industrial non-dairy spreads. For years, there had been a long-running clash between butter and margarines, but in the 1970s and 1980s, the battleground was no longer about taste versus convenience and price: it was now also a matter of public health. With healthy eating becoming a major media and public concern, nutritional battle lines were drawn on the health risks of animal compared with vegetable fats, the benefits of sunflower versus olive oil and the poor old consumer found herself drawn into a labyrinth of confusing claims. What indeed exactly was the difference between mono versus poly-unsaturated fats? And as companies innovated, brands sprung up like rhubarb. Soon I was being paid to understand the similarities and differences between British Flora (The margarine for men, according to Terry Wogan, launched in 1969) and its more hardcore European cousin Becel, which some people in YF Global Headquarters wanted to unify into a single Eurobrand. Becel later spawned an even more nutraceutical inspired sub-brand called Pro Activ.

Whilst a bewildering battle of claims was raging on the health front, there had been significant innovation in another sector of yellow fats, which without any trace of irony, was called by its marketing managers, the taste segment. Here the job of marketers was to convince the consumer they would not be able to tell the difference between some new factory-based oil melange and the real stuff that came from cows. However, by now, the whole subject was becoming a tad tedious for the consumer, and it proved hard work getting the consumer interested. Hence the increased use of marketing shock tactics with in-your-face brand names like I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter (1979).

But the dairy farmers were not to be underestimated. A number of new improved butter products started to appear, which majored on their superior taste benefits whilst trying to overcome some of the perceived drawbacks of dairy products, notably spreadabilityClover (1983) was one of the leading examples of these New Model Butters, and its adverts demonstrated its superiority in lubricating the Nation’s toast and crumpets. Competition followed soon from the likes of Golden Churn, which had adverts voiced by Willie Rushton and a pack with a rather impractical lid, which in the age of retailer space management and product profitability was a marketing frill too much.

With my career in the world of brands moving into its latter stages, I seemed to have saved the best to last, and in a strange quirk of the narrative arc, I got to work on the yellow fat granddaddy of them all: Anchor.Frankly, after all those non-animal fats, it was great to get back to butter. 

Anchor is the trademark of Fonterra, the hugely successful dairy business owned by New Zealand farmers. Henry Reynolds first marketed Anchor on November 3rd, 1886, with, at least according to the legend, a sweet cream butter recipe created by an American called David Gemmell. Gemmell, who was about to return to the USA, was persuaded to help Reynolds establish his factory at Pukekura, Waikato, in the lush pastoral meadows of North Island. Reynolds, taking advantage of the innovations in refrigerated transport, immediately started exporting his ‘pure creamy’ butter worldwide. 

But why call it Anchor I hear you ask? Trying to think of an appropriate mark or symbol, he was inspired by a tattoo on one of his worker’s arms. Today Anchor is one of the world’s most recognizable trademarks and the Brand Historian has only happy memories of his trips to North Island, New Zealand helping to reshape the brand portfolio of Fonterra, of which  Anchor continues to be the most valuable global asset. 

I can think of no better way of ending my sojourn in fats world than with a wonderful lyric pastiche written by David Bernstein, my old boss at The Creative Business, which aptly captures the bonkers spirit of the Great Age of Yellow Fats.

You’re The Taste

By David Bernstein:

You’re the cream in my coffee

You’re the salt in my stew

You will always be my necessity

I’d be lost without you.

You’re my favourite phosphate 

E210

I’m so glad it is 

You’re my additives

You’re my carcinogen.

My love’s undimmed dear 

‘Cos your milk’s unskimmed dear

Each time we’ve dated

Polly – you’re saturated.

You’re the dye in my kipper

Tartrazine in my squash

I’m polemical 

You’re my chemical

You’re the taste in my nosh.

I’m conservative 

You’re preservative. 

I’m ancestral 

You’re cholesterol. 

You’re the taste in my nosh 

Gosh! 

1886 Playlist A Symphonic Breakthrough in Vienna

Anton Bruckner Symphony No. 7

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