"Nobody makes peas mushy like Batchelors", the TV commercial claims, as it shows a plump green pea reduced to a blubbering mulch when confronted with a This Is Your Life-style reunion of friends and family. The commercial follows an earlier ad first run two years ago in northern England, where it resulted in a 26 per cent increase in local sales.
"Peas play a central role in Batchelors' heritage," explains Sara Bennison, an account director at the advertising agency Ammirati Puris Lintas. "Batchelors was the first to put peas in tins 21 years ago. However, by 1994, the market for canned peas was in long-term decline." Batchelors had not advertised the product since 1988, but the company decided to give it one last go with a modest (in advertising terms, at least) pounds 250,000 budget.
Batchelors has now decided to go national. "It's really a northern brand, but we want to tap into the current British food revival," says Collette Lux, of Batchelors' parent company, Van den Bergh Foods. "People are returning to traditional culinary values. Mushy peas have as much national relevance as Boddingtons, which comes from Manchester."
Peas, it seems, have got trendy. The new campaign is a shrewd strategy driven by necessity; according to the market research company Euromonitor, although tinned peas remain the second most popular canned food after tomatoes, sales fell by 12.7 per cent from pounds 63m to pounds 55m between 1992 and 1996. "[Tinned] peas are not only losing out to convenience foods," Euromonitor concludes. "They're also part of a traditional diet which has fallen out of favour with many UK consumers, especially higher income groups."
Mushy peas certainly polarise opinion. "They remind me of my childhood - they taste comforting," says Anna Jones, a midlander seen shopping in Tesco this week. "Which is exactly why I'd never eat them again," grimaces her friend, Margaret Hunter, a southerner born and bred.
"People either love them, or hate them," Bennison concedes. However, she believes the product - now known by the Batchelors' marketing team as `Yorkshire caviar' - can bridge this gulf. Shoppers associate certain emotional values with the product, even if they no longer eat it, she claims. "People see it as `eccentric' yet `honest'. Most people have eaten mushy peas at some time. The point is to get them to try eating them again."
No direct competitor challenges Batchelors' market dominance, but own- label mushy peas are a constant threat. Batchelors, however, has a secret weapon. Step forward the super-plump `Bunting pea'. It may be an uphill struggle against prejudice, but in a market long characterised by slimmer peas, tough tactics are required. "We use the term `voluptuous'," Bennison explains. "It's all part of an attempt to turn the market on its head and say: `big is good'."