Horse’s Mouth: Holly Whittaker and Philip Poole, Whittaker’s

For 119 years, the Whittaker name has been synonymous with chocolate in New Zealand. But rather than resting on tradition, the small team has developed new products, collaborated with other brands (including the recently leaked Jelly Tip block) and consequently left consumers curious about what will come next. Here are a few family secrets.

On family heritage

Philip Poole, head of marketing (PP): The company was founded in 1896 by James Henry Whittaker. Brian and Andrew Whittaker own the company now and they are third generation Whittakers. Holly and Matt Whittaker are also in the company, so there is a fourth generation there, so the dynasty lives on, as it were. It’s very important because with Brian and Andrew, for example, they’re still very much involved with the business. They still get into the factory at 6.30 in the morning and make sure everything is set up correctly. They are very hands-on, particularly in terms of the factory, and that translates into the quality of the chocolate. They’re absolutely rigorous about producing premium quality chocolate, because we operate in a very competitive market. We’re up against Cadbury, Nestle, Lindt, which are all major multi-nationals and very good blue chip companies. And the thing we need to do is make sure we do everything better than them otherwise we won’t prosper. We certainly have an ambition to be the best. It also gives you consistency. We have a very clear vision, which is: ‘The world eating world-class chocolate from Porirua.’ 

Holly Whittaker, marketing manager (HW): Having a family heritage is a real point of difference and an advantage over the other competitors in the market. It creates consumer trust and loyalty, because there’s a connection to New Zealand. We are a New Zealand family and a New Zealand-run business, so that resonates with the New Zealand consumer very positively.

On a changing market

PP: The main thing that has changed over time is the building of the company. Brian and Andrew have invested a huge amount in the factory and the machinery today is world-class. They’ve also really expanded a company that was originally based on the peanut slab until about ten to 15 years ago. Since then, the company has really developed into other areas, like the blocks, squares, chunks and so forth. They’ve really developed the product range. I would say that the product strategy is where the biggest change has occurred.   

On the younger generations talking to the media

PP: Brian and Andrew are just very private people and they prefer to remain private. But with Matt and Holly coming in at a time when the business is expanding so much, it’s a chance to introduce them to consumers.
HW: I guess we see the media as positive opportunity and not so much as a threat. And in the last few years, we’ve seen how much value it has added to the business by engaging with the media. Because we are a family business, there are personalities involved. And by putting a face to the name, so to speak, it builds a stronger rapport. So it’s really proving a successful strategy.

On being a trusted brand

PP: We are a family-owned New Zealand company, and we also have strong principles in that none of our products have palm oil in them. So, it’s a combination of those things, but it also goes back to the quality of the product. Chocolate is a small indulgence and customers don’t want to be disappointed. Most people are experts on chocolate as well. They know what they like, because they’re putting it into their mouths.

Hello Chocolate Lovers. These blocks are extra good. They help communities improve healthcare in Ghana. You can be in to win some here: http://whittake.rs/nzchocolate

Posted by Whittaker’s Chocolate Lovers on Tuesday, 12 May 2015

HW: Because people are so familiar with the products and because we’ve been around for 119 years now, people have grown up with that nostalgic peanut slab. It’s trustworthy, reliable, and fortunately we haven’t let our chocolate lovers down ever. It also comes down to our values and how we communicate online. We have very strong two-way dialogue with social media, and the fact that we actually listen and respond to chocolate lovers goes a long way toward having that most-trusted brand status. 

On getting social media right

HW: It’s been a long-term strategy for us as part of our brand. We got into social media quite a long time ago and we’ve always been very clear on our values. We’ve taken the time to be very active and responsive. We monitor the community very closely and reply. It’s also a great way to share news, and we’re always trying to innovate, surprise and reward our loyal chocolate lovers. It’s a great platform, and we’re very fortunate to have a product that so many people have a very strong emotional connection to. With traditional media, you have one-way communication, and by allowing our communities to participate and talk to each other as well has been very valuable. 

On brand collaborations

PP: We realised that we’ve got a pretty strong property with the Whittaker’s brand, and chocolate is a small indulgence and there are other products that are also small indulgences that can link up to chocolate. Chocolate milk is obviously one of those, and we also have an ice-cream collaboration with Killinchy Gold. So it’s really part of the brand development in those other premium areas in terms of linking with those products where there’s a natural connection. So if you take Lewis Road Creamery, it’s a premium New Zealand brand and chocolate milk just seemed a natural collaboration. 

On the movement against unhealthy food 
HW: I think that other products like fast food and soft drinks are products that people consume as part of their everyday diet. When consumers start to replace water with soft drinks, this is where the problem arises. But with chocolate it’s something you have on the odd occasion as a treat. There are times when a birthday cake is allowed or a glass of Champagne. It’s about a sense of occasion. 
On maintaining quality

PP: We’re the only company in New Zealand that does the whole manufacturing process from bean to bar: importing the cocoa beans, roasting them, refining them, and doing the whole nine yards until the final product. We could import cocoa liquor, but we don’t do that because we want to maintain the quality. Andrew and Brian have built up a huge knowledge in terms of where to source the best ingredients from, be it cocoa, almonds or macadamias.

On shifting ad spend to digital

HW: I just had a bit of look today and spoke to our media strategist. Going back five years the split was 90-10. That’s 90 percent in traditional media and ten percent in digital. And now the split is 60-40, so 60 percent in traditional and 40 percent in digital. And that shift toward digital is likely to continue. 
PP: Most of this digital spend goes toward Facebook, YouTube and Google, but television is still very important for us. The emotional values of a brand are important, and I think TV is still very successful in communicating these to consumers.

On staying ahead 

PP: This industry is very competitive, but we have a clear strategy that has been very successful for us over the past ten years and that has seen our market share grow. We will continue that, but the competition isn’t going to go away. That’s why we’re still completely focused on being the best, and that’s what we work towards. We have a relatively small group of very hardworking and smart people working towards that. 

On working with agencies

HW: In terms of a small team of people, we also have very strong relationships with our advertising, media and sales agencies. These are all long-term relationships that have contributed to the success. 
PP: We currently use Assignment Group for our creative work, MBM is our media agency and Tell works on the digital side. Creatives Howard Greive, John Plimmer and Chris Bleakley have worked with the business since the mid 90s—at different agencies, but the people are still the same. [This is also the case] for Matt Bale who drives the media at MBM. 

On building the brand

PP: In terms of the brand, we’ve got significant plans to continue building the brand, but anything we do will always be measured against whether it’s adding to the quality of the brand and the quality of the product. That is always our focus.

On the pressure of innovating

PP: I think pressure is a good thing. It gets the adrenaline running. And we’re lucky in that everyone that currently works on the Whittaker’s brand really enjoys it. I don’t think we would be successful if we didn’t enjoy what we do. And we enjoy what we do and we will continue to do that.
HW: Fortunately, in chocolate-making, it is very vast and there are many directions we could go in. There are always new ideas coming to the table from marketing, export, the directors, and so on. Everyone is always very forthcoming with new ideas. So, we’re stuck in terms of innovation. It’s generally a question of how we’re going to do it. That’s really exciting and it gets everyone working toward the goal.  

On whether there’ll be brand collaborations in 2015

PP: The short answer is ‘yes’. And the next one is: ‘I can’t tell you what they are’ … We do have something coming and when it’s released, we’ll send you [NZ Marketing] samples of it … Strangely enough, we have the agency outside the meeting room at the moment and they’re going to present the next campaign for us. 

Hello Chocolate lovers. J H Whittaker may well have Jelly on the mind. Here’s a tip…keep your eye on #July.

Posted by Whittaker’s Chocolate Lovers on Friday, 5 June 2015

  • This interview was originally published in the May/June edition of NZ Marketing

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