In 1896, James Henry Whittaker gave Kiwis the first taste of the chocolate that would see his name inextricably linked to the treat from that moment on. First sold directly to consumers from his horse and van, the chocolate became so popular that by 1913 Whittaker decided to establish an official business bearing his name in Wellington. From those early days, the business was a family operation, with Whittaker’s sons, Ronald and James, integrally involved in the day-to-day running of the manufacturing.
If we fast-forward three generations and over 100 years to the present day, things don’t look all that different, with the Whittaker family still active at the core of the business—a fact typified by the tongue-in-cheek statement ‘blood is thicker than water, and chocolate is thicker than that’, which currently features under the history section of the company’s website.
To this day, the company often trumpets the fact that “it’s the only major chocolate company in New Zealand that imports its cocoa beans, roasts and refines them and controls the whole manufacturing process through to the end product”. But the cocoa beans aren’t the only ingredient to have contributed to the company’s success.
In 2009, when Cadbury substituted cocoa butter for palm oil in its dairy milk chocolate and dropped the size by 50 grams, the public responded with outrage. According to Ruth Laugesen’s article in the Listener, the fiasco saw Whittaker’s market share in the big block market rise from 22 to 32 percent within a year. In addition, Whittaker’s retail sales in supermarkets and petrol stations shot up from $17 million to $27.6 million between 2009 and 2010. And while there has been a correlation between Whittaker’s recent success and Cadbury’s palm oil fiasco, Laugensen points out that an oversimplification of the narrative doesn’t do justice to the groundwork the team at Whittaker’s has been doing behind the scenes.
“The brothers had patiently transformed the company with years of investment in equipment, careful attention to quality of ingredients, new product development and expert marketing. When the palm oil crisis hit, Whittaker’s was ready. It had a skilled advertising team and a product that could withstand all the attention it was suddenly getting.” And leading this skilled team was the head of marketing Philip Poole, an Englishman who has served at the company for the last 12 years. By the time he joined Whittaker’s, Poole was already an industry veteran, having previously held marketing roles for Unilever in South Africa, the UK, Thailand and New Zealand. And in his time with the company, Whittaker’s share of the moulded chocolate market has grown from 10 to 35 percent and its share of the enrobed chocolate market share has doubled from 11 to 22 percent.
That success has also flowed over to the awards circuit, with Whittaker’s picking up a slew of gongs for branding and product quality over the last three years. In the 2012, 2013 and 2014 editions of the Reader’s Digest Most Trusted Brands Survey, Whittaker’s was chosen as New Zealand’s most trusted confectionary brand, most iconic brand and the overall most trusted brand in the nation. In addition to this three-peat, Whittaker’s also won the most loved brand, most iconic brand, best New Zealand brand, best new product launch (Whittakers/L&P) at the last year’s inaugural edition of the Buy NZ Made People’s Choice Awards. Success also came for the company at the Fairtrade Awards as it won the progressive best new product award, and more recently at the 2014 Media Awards, where the company picked up the best product launch and FMCG gongs.
Poole says this success has not come from following the latest trends, but rather by focusing on what has always given the company success.
“The core principles of marketing have not changed,” he says. “Whittaker’s communication strategy has not changed in terms of what we want to say about the brand. How the message is delivered to the consumer has changed. Digital media now plays a significantly more important role than it did five years ago.”
Fortunately, Whittaker’s has proved itself very capable of harnessing digital channels to reach Kiwis and Jasmine Currie (nee Griffin) was acknowledged for her role in this when she was awarded the 2012 Rookie marketer of the year. From uploading a video of artist Evan Purdie illustrating a picture of James Henry Whittaker to creating a website made entirely of chocolate to getting fans to cover things in hundreds and thousands to causing a furore by staging a collision between a Whittaker’s van and the L&P monument, its digital efforts have spread the company’s marketing messages while simultaneously entertaining the masses. And this has led to its Facebook page attracting 350,000 likes, on par with McDonald’s and sitting behind the All Blacks.
The company has been equally adept at attracting attention in the traditional channels. At a time when everyone else was turning their backs on Nigella Lawson on account of her personal mishaps, Whittaker’s stuck with her and brought her out to New Zealand in May this year for the next instalment of its five roll refined campaign. The move paid off, resulting in stacks of earned media as the nation’s major media covered the story and, with over 50,000 views, the spot is currently the third most watched video on Whittaker’s YouTube channel.
Last year, when Poole was shortlisted for this award, he summarised his marketing approach by saying: “Make sure it’s great quality, don’t be boring and always respect and listen to the consumer.” And judging by all that Whittaker’s has achieved in his 12 years at the company, he can safely check all those boxes.
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