MEAT replacement Quorn was in a grim position four years ago as an unloved and under-invested part of Premier Foods, with sales tumbling and no sign of a sustainable future.
Sales slipped by eight per cent to £123m in 2010 and it was clear that a change was needed.
That took place under the guidance of chief executive Kevin Brennan following the £205m buyout of the North Yorkshire company in 2011.
Mr Brennan said the real opportunity for the brand is to build beyond the historical vegetarian audience and bring in a lot of healthy eaters.
This can be people eating healthily from a weight management point of view, but also people trying to be more fit and healthy in total. In times of austerity it has also appealed to people’s pockets as a much cheaper alternative to beef and lamb.
Blackfriar’s 12-year-old son is living proof of the brand’s success among meat eaters. At school he will opt for Quorn ‘chicken’ curry over other dishes and Mr Brennan said the push into schools is a key part of its drive to get young fans on board.
“We’re winning the youth over with stealth,” said Mr Brennan.
However, Blackfriar would like to point out that some work needs to be done on the marketing as Blackfriar’s son and his friends are adamant that they are eating something called ‘Corn’.
Nonetheless, the latest marketing campaign has proved a huge success. The company has spent £15m on advertising and new product development over the last two years.
Its latest £6m campaign, launched earlier this year, is headed by double Olympic champion Mo Farah.
Quorn is keen to build on its attraction to non-vegetarians who want to cut down on the amount of meat they consume and the health-conscious.
“We’ve had a very positive response to the Mo Farah campaign,” said Mr Brennan.
“It’s the general health message. We use him to get across the fact that Quorn can help make you fit and healthy. People want the protein without the fat. Mo Farah is an athlete with strong muscles, but little fat.”
Mr Brennan claims that most vegetarians want to be vegetarian, but they don’t want to be different.
“With Quorn they can avoid meat, but still eat spaghetti bolognaise, chilli and lasagne,” he said. “We hear endless stories from people saying: ‘My husband has been eating Quorn for years, but he doesn’t realise it’. Quorn’s popularity means that less animals are being slaughtered.”
Quorn has also seen a lasting effect of the horsemeat scandal which broke a year ago when horsemeat was discovered in beef products in UK supermarkets.
“We obviously saw a positive blip in sales when it happened, but what is clearer is we are seeing a group of consumers clearly make a significant change,” said Mr Brennan.
He said that the scandal rose awareness among consumers of how much meat they eat, with people looking for alternative vegetarian options.
“It’s about just cutting down a little bit on meat, but obviously because we eat so much just a small change in that behaviour is a big growth opportunity for us.
“Eating less meat was already on people’s agenda from a sustainability issue, a cost issue and a health issue, ” he said “But horse-gate accelerated it.”
According to a You Gov poll at the end of December, 21 per cent of those surveyed said they ate less meat than they did a year ago. Launched nationally in 1995, the company attracted 12.2 million UK consumers in 2013, up two million on the previous year.
Mr Brennan said the focus for new product development in 2014 is on its snacking and deli range, which includes meat-free samosas, spring rolls and chorizo.
Today Quorn is one of the fastest-growing grocery brands in Britain and a huge Yorkshire export success story.
The firm has now revealed plans to create another 400 jobs in a part of Yorkshire and the north east that is much in need of investment.