You know when you’ve been Tango’d. And last week it appeared Britvic’s
marketing director Steve Kay had been, when he abruptly walked out of
the company’s Chelmsford HQ. The official line was that he’d completed
the job he was brought in to do.
Everyone can agree that Kay’s record during his three years in the top
Britvic post was a successful one. Tango has become a 90s brand icon and
its strategy has won a place in marketing text books by turning an
advertising campaign into a cult experience.
But it is wrong to assume that Kay’s reign at Britvic has been entirely
The 42-year-old Yorkshireman has many admirers. Those who have worked
for him praise his hands-off management style, his intelligence and his
quick-thinking creativity. But Kay has detractors too. They say that he
fits the old saying ‘You can always tell a Yorkshireman, but you can’t
tell him much’.
Indeed Kay himself says the Tango turnaround is not entirely his doing.
The brand’s change from lacklustre fizzy pop to madcap British icon was
in fact started by Tony Hillyer, who is now fighting for Littlewoods
Pools against the National Lottery. Kay’s job had been to take Tango
Some say he has not gone far enough. Detractors say that although
Tango’s sales have undoubtedly grown over the past three years - from
150 million litres in 1994, to 199 million in 1995, to a projected 260
million in 1996 - so has the investment behind it. In 1994, the firm
spent pounds 10m on the brand, in 1995, pounds 12m. This year it is
spending pounds 17m and over pounds 124m will be invested over the next
‘Tango has grown, but maybe it should be questioned whether it has grown
enough to justify the investment behind it,’ says one observer. They
also say that Tango has been allowed to dominate the Britvic portfolio,
putting other brands, such as Robinsons, in the shade.
Kay has also promoted himself along with the Tango brand. He is a man
who enjoys the spotlight and has featured in two ad campaigns. In the
summer of 1994, just a year into the job, he starred in ads for the
launch of Still Tango. He told a primetime TV audience to report any
sightings of the drink, insisting it had nothing to do with Britvic.
Thirty thousand viewers rang the hotline and the Britvic launch was
widely reported. Unfortunately, the ITC got in touch too, telling
Britvic that it had exploited ‘the credibility of the medium to play a
prank on viewers, all in pursuit of the great god publicity’.
Then, in June 1994, there was more unwelcome attention when Tango
inadvertently pioneered the alcopop sector, after Still Tango began to
ferment and turn alcoholic on the shelves. It had to be withdrawn, then
relaunched a year later, leading to another spoof TV ad which featured
the marketing director being ‘slippered’ for his mistakes.
There have been further mistakes outside Tango. In March 1994, Kay made
the bullish announcement: ‘All our research has shown we have another
winning brand,’ as pounds 6m was poured into the Liptonice ice tea drink
in a joint venture with Unilever and PepsiCo. In April 1996 he was
making rather more humble statements and it was acknowledged that Brits
simply would not embrace the cold fizzy tea.
The problems with the brand were clearly not held against him by
Britvic, which promoted him to the board in July 1995. Kay looked
destined for a senior executive role within the company beyond
marketing, until last week.
It is unlikely Kay will stay away from the marketing world for long: his
pedigree means several companies will be trying to get the telephone
number of his holiday home in France this week.
Kay began his marketing career working on whitener products for Cadbury-
Typhoo. After three years he joined Seagram as brand manager of wines.
He left to join Whitbread, becoming the marketing controller of the
Three years further on, he made a brief visit to the agency world and
joined Yellowhammer, but realised within months that he preferred the
client side of life. Carlsberg was his next port of call but he left
when it became Carlsberg-Tetley.
Kay has not yet decided on his future role, but it is certain that his
track record and work on Tango will ensure him another top marketing
spot - if he wants one.
1985-1988 Take-home, marketing controller - Whitbread
1989-1993 Marketing director - Carlsberg
1993 Director of Carlsberg brands - Carlsberg
1993-1994 Director of brands marketing - Britvic
1994-present Director of marketing - Britvic