Earlier this year, Bruce 'Pic' Picot’s one-millionth jar of peanut butter came off the production line in Nelson, serving as statistical proof of the love the Kiwis have for his product. And since good news travels, it comes as little surprise that the Aussie supermarkets have signed a deal with Picot to stock his product on their shelves. We chat to the purveyor of nutty goodness about expanding his empire, combining poems with peanut butter and being a Kiwi success story.
How did you strike the deal to move into Australia?
Our first step was to establish a mail order channel. We were selling a fair bit of peanut butter to Australian visitors and quite a few Kiwi mums and dads were buying jars to send to their kids overseas. We knew we would be wanting to export eventually, and it made sense to maintain a conversation with our existing overseas customers rather than trying to start from scratch. Once we built up our production capacity I joined an NZTE Path to Market programme in Melbourne and made contact with Gershgoods, a wholesale distributor in NSW, who slipped us into deli and specialty stores around Sydney. We began doing tastings in store and at Australian food shows, and set up wholesalers in each state, all drawing from a contract warehouse in Sydney. About a year ago we appointed DK Consulting to present our stuff to Coles and Woolworths. After three or four fruitless meetings with their buyers and an inordinate amount of time there, I was on the verge of abandoning Australia and concentrating on the US and UK when we got that first order from Coles.
Are you concerned about meeting the demands of providing your product to 762 new stores? How will you go about ensuring that you produce enough?
Our sales have virtually doubled in each of the seven years we have been making peanut butter. We have been right down to our last case, and once we had to fly in a tonne of nuts, but we have never not supplied our customers. We are presently only working a single five-day shift and are confident we can supply Coles with our existing setup. We are also feeling our way into the UK and the US, and to ensure we are able to take advantage of any opportunities these markets present, we are commissioning another line that we expect to have running mid 2015.
How important is your Kiwi heritage to the brand? How has it shaped what the brand is today?
There were no commercial peanut butter makers left in New Zealand when we started. The big brands had moved their production offshore years before and the last independent producer, Moody’s, had closed its doors five years previously, unable to compete with cheap imported product. I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to the origin of the other peanut butters on the market, but when the fact that Sanitarium’s offering was being manufactured in China hit the headlines we had a point of difference handed to us on a plate.
I reckon our being based in Nelson rather than Penrose or Hamilton gives us an edge in the New Zealand market. Mentioning that you are calling from Nelson makes a phone call just a little easier, and our New Zealand origins have the same effect on our international contacts. It’s that flash of some place calm and green that lifts people’s spirits and makes them feel good about dealing with us. Years ago I came across a bottle of shampoo in a friend’s shower. It was in a green bottle and smelled strongly of mint, like mint sauce. I was astounded when I read on the label: “It smells like mint sauce. “ No copywriter’s nonsense about the fragrant hint of fresh forest mint, just the way a human would talk about it to another human. I felt a real surge of affection for that shampoo, and I try to keep all our communications with our customers on that level. It’s not about dumbing down or avoiding being pompous, it’s about communicating honestly and treating our customers with respect.
What is the story behind the poems on the reverse of all the labels? How did this start? Why do you keep it up?
We don’t talk much about those poems. Until you guys brought it up, they’ve been a bit of a secret. A wee surprise that those in the know can share with their friends. There are ten different ones at any particular time, and although they are all attributed to Bill Smith, we have three contributors. Two of them are proper, published poets and the other I cannot identify. The guys who write our poems are now some of the most widely published poets in New Zealand. The poems will continue, but there will be some surprises appearing over the next few months.
How has business changed since you first started making peanut butter?
It started seven years ago with me and a converted concrete mixer roaster in my garage. We now have eighteen staff, a flash new warehouse and are making tens of thousands of jars a week. We are still growing fast, so we get to learn all about change management at the same time as we learn about management.
How important is digital marketing in spreading your brand message?
Our growth has come through customer referrals. People are constantly telling me how they recommend us to their friends, give it as gifts and send it to their kids in London or Dunedin. I think the fact that we don’t advertise encourages people to see spreading the word about Pic’s as a personal responsibility. I’m over 60, so I’m no digital native, and I have yet to be convinced that fancy social media strategies are any less annoying than ordinary advertising campaigns. So we use it to just chat to folk who like us.
What other strategies do you employ to spread your brand message?
Our primary promotional tool is tastings. There are thousands of people out there who think they don’t like peanut butter but who, with a little persuasion, will give it a try. The lifetime value of one new convert is phenomenal, even without the multiplier effect of referrals.
I list my occupation on departure and arrival cards as ‘peanut butter maker’. This almost invariably starts a conversation and the next time that immigration guy is buying peanut butter he’ll buy ours. We engaged a Nelson company, WaltersPR, last year to give us a bit more rigour around communicating with the media, which had been a bit hit and miss up till then. I was a bit diffident about it, but Jacquie Walters’ contacts and the careful and respectful way she communicates with them has worked really well for us.
We make the most of our Nelson roots. We sold our first jar of peanut butter at the farmer’s market and my 19-year-old son Louis and I still man a weekly stall at our Saturday market. We advertise our market-based jar recycling/wildlife funding programme on our labels, as well as our daily factory tours. It creates an easy point of contact for our customers and that contact gives us very rapid feedback if we do something wrong or introduce a new product.
To what do you attribute your success? What separates you from all the other peanut butter brands?
We have a truly exceptional product in a category where quality had been forsaken and price alone was driving sales. We now have a few other brands chasing our market, but being first to market is a big advantage. That and having total transparency around our processes and ingredients, combined with an extraordinarily loyal customer base makes us a pretty hard act to follow.
What have been some of the mistakes that you’ve made along your business journey? How would you have done things differently if you could go back?
I might have started in this business 20 years ago, but I had some pretty neat adventures in the intervening years, so I really don’t have any regrets.
Do you have some tips for those looking to start their own businesses?
I’m doing something I feel really good about. We make really healthy, totally delicious food and I feel very privileged to be doing that. I guess it comes down to enthusiasm. I don’t think anything can stand in the way of enthusiasm.