Business Essentials: 'As English as lasagne'... try telling that to the roast beef and Yorkshires brigade

Aunt Bessie's is famed for 'traditional' food, says Kate Hilpern. So can it change the recipe without alienating older customers?
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If you like eating Yorkshire puddings a lot more than you like making them, there's a good chance you've already experienced the Aunt Bessie's brand. Available in practically every supermarket in the UK, the Aunt Bessie's line of pre-prepared foods is now worth £110m.

If you like eating Yorkshire puddings a lot more than you like making them, there's a good chance you've already experienced the Aunt Bessie's brand. Available in practically every supermarket in the UK, the Aunt Bessie's line of pre-prepared foods is now worth £110m.

The brand came out of the William Jackson family bakery business, which has been operating in Hull for 150 years. In the mid-1970s, it was asked by Butlins to develop frozen Yorkshire puddings for use by the holiday camps' chefs. Then, 10 years later, it launched into retail under the Tryton Foods banner. A further decade on, it de- cided to brand the business, and Aunt Bessie's was born in 1995.

A few years down the line and Tryton was expanding into a wider range of frozen products, including stuffing balls, dumplings and roast potatoes. More recently, it has introduced frozen vegetables, meat pies, filled Yorkshires, chips and a range of puddings.

"The brand is all about traditional food - as good, if not better, than you can make at home," says Neil Sanderson, managing director of Tryton.

But because the definition of "traditional" is a movable feast, Tryton faces a dilemma. "As new consumers come into the market, their view of 'traditional' includes food like spaghetti bolognese, lasagne and curry," says Mr Sanderson. "We want to accommodate these people and our challenge is how to move the Aunt Bessie's brand with the times, without alienating current customers."

Mr Sanderson explains that his own children regard pasta as being as traditional as any roast dinner, but that his parents certainly wouldn't. "Some older people would even consider food like curry as exotic," he says. "So we want to know how we can utilise some of the benefits of the Aunt Bessie's brand to start producing these kinds of foods, without leaving any loyal customers feeling conned."

Aunt Bessie is supposed to be your favourite aunt, he says, so her foods are marketed as the kind that she would have made and that you would eat at the table with the family. "We worked hard to create just the right emotional feel around the brand, which is focused on warmth, cosiness and family togetherness," says Mr Sanderson. "Meanwhile, the wholesome, fresh ingredients make it taste good. There is no need for preservatives because all our products are freshly frozen."

The second fundamental strand of the brand is convenience. "We're not talking microwave ping food; there is a bit of effort required - but far less so than making food from scratch." Finally, adds Mr Sanderson, affordability is also an important part of the brand.

The result, he explains, is a marketing strategy that aims to persuade people they can still provide the food that their mother or aunt made, but in a much cleverer and quicker way. This message goes out via ads on television and in magazines such as TV Times, Chat and Good Housekeeping.

Shifting the goalposts of "tradition" is not something Tryton intends to do within the next six months. "But we do want to look at making changes within the next year to two years."


Nigel Markwick, consultant, Wolff Olins (branding agency)

"We agree that Aunt Bessie must bring herself up to date. Tryton needs to explore what 'traditional' means to a wider audience. At the moment it implies 'old fashioned', but what if it was reinterpreted as 'authentic'?

"After all, this is 'real' food made with fresh ingredients, and then frozen. No additives. No preservatives. That should resonate with a lot of people at the moment, yet it's not even on the packaging.

"Aunt Bessie herself looks out of touch. Middle-aged and older people are dynamic, energetic and in touch with the modern world - so why show Aunt Bessie as a character from a Fifties sitcom? She could still represent 'traditional' values - quality of ingredients and food - maybe even expand to talk about creating social events rather than just calories.

"This way Aunt Bessie could keep her dignity and devotion to authentic food without additives, and still introduce you to a curry or two."

Kevin Dundas, chief executive, Saatchi & Saatchi

"The stronger the emotional connection that consumers have with a brand, the easier it is to introduce new products.

"Aunt Bessie's is highly respected for its wholesome, fresh ingredients and convenience. The connection made by consumers is rooted in the warmth of the traditional British Sunday lunch.

"Neil is right to be concerned about introducing modern alternatives like pasta. He is also right that new consumers won't have a problem with pasta being seen as traditional. The challenge is to create loyalty beyond reason among all customers so that Aunt Bessie will become what we call a 'Lovemark' (more about this another time).

"To meet this challenge, we'd add a new chapter to the Aunt Bessie's tale by introducing a bit of mystery - the discovery of a long-lost travel journal, 'Aunt Bessie's Grand Tour Recipe Collection'.

"New products like lasagne or curry easily fit under this new sub-range.

"This would build on the core emotional strength of the existing brand and be easy to translate into many communication avenues."

John Greenhough, head of business development, the Chartered Institute of Marketing

"Tryton talks about 'shifting the goalposts of tradition'. This will be bigger than the Aunt Bessie's brand. Although the younger consumer might view a curry as traditional, many older consumers will be opposed to such a move. The firm should use good PR to get the nation talking about what 'traditional' food means.

"Tryton must change the connotations of 'traditional' over time. A quick introduction of curries and lasagnes may shock some people. However, a slow introduction of new but traditional flavourings, building up to introducing foreign meals over a period of years, will ensure that current consumers aren't turned off while the company attracts new ones.

"Tryton should assess its current consumer base. It shouldn't alienate older customers if they are a large part of its market. However, if younger consumers make up the largest part, the firm may well be able to go down the 'curry is traditional' route."