Profile: In the name of the family

Jonathan Warburton, chairman of Warburtons
Jonathan Warburton, chairman of Warburtons

Jonathan Warburton, chairman of Warburtons, is determined to conquer London and the South East.

Some brands spend years, and small fortunes, on new product development. The approach of Jonathan Warburton, however, has a rather more domestic bent. The chairman and figurehead of the bakery that bears his name, insists it is 'mandatory' for his family to eat the firm's products at his Bolton home.

This has not always been conducive to marital bliss. 'My wife used to go to Marks & Spencer and buy its seeded loaf,' he recalls. 'I said to my guys: "Let's make a loaf so my wife doesn't have to buy one".'

Mrs Warburton's instincts were, it seems, wholly correct; her husband admits the loaf in question was one of the company's most successful launches in the past 10 years.

Family ties

The homespun image is entirely in keeping with the Warburtons brand - the 134-year-old, family-run, no-nonsense Northern bakery. It is slightly at odds with reality, however - Warburtons is now the second-biggest grocery brand in the country, behind Coca-Cola, according to Nielsen. Sales in 2009 hit £581m, beating rival Premier Foods' brand Hovis by nearly £150m.

That dominance is the result of more than two decades of region-by-region expansion across the UK. Jonathan, 52, and his cousins, Brett and Ross, became the fifth generation of Warburtons to inherit the company in 1985. At the time, it was a highly diversified business, selling everything from car-number plates to jewellery.

'I have learned that there is a temptation to think you can turn your hand to everything, but the key is to do one thing well,' says Warburton.

The peripheral businesses were ditched and Warburtons set about breaking out of its Lancashire heartland, opening depots and bakeries across England. Still based in Bolton, the company is the clear leader in the bread market outside London, the South East and East Anglia.

The secret of its success? The bluff Lancastrian gives a down-to-earth answer. 'It's not rocket science,' he says. 'We just make bloody good stuff.'

He is, however, happy to court publicity - one of his factories hosted an election-campaign stop for David Cameron. Warburton has also appeared in several of the brand's ads (including a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo in the current activity, by RKCR/Y&R) and features on the brand's website. 'I accept it as part of the responsibility for having the name above the door,' he adds. 'What we are saying in these ads is that we take bread making very seriously.'

The current TV campaign parodies classic war films, and introduces the strapline 'We care because our name's on it'. The activity follows a failed attempt to move the brand in a different direction in 2008 with ads by Bartle Bogle Hegarty that showed a Japanese businessman becoming confused by constant glimpses of the baker's name.

'It is very unlikely that there will be any more Japanese tourist ads. We are now moving toward our core values,' says Warburton. 'The ad in 2008 did very well for us but I think it was the best for both parties that we reviewed our advertising.'

Nonetheless, Warburton still has an eye for canny marketing, citing Red Bull, Coca-Cola, and Audi as brands he admires. 'With the meerkat ads, it is the client who bought the idea that should get the credit,' he says. 'Can you imagine the meeting (when the agency proposed it)? You'd show them the door. Full credit to them for taking the risk.'

Some challenges lie ahead. The core UK bread market, valued at about £2bn, is displaying few signs of growth, and that has put the pressure on Warburtons to diversify. It is now looking for a slice of the premium snack market with the launch of ChippidyDooDaa Pitta Chips and SnackaDoodle wholegrain products.

Eschewing a marketing blitz, the company is opting for a soft launch as it looks to gain a foothold in these adjacent categories. Next up is likely to be pitta bread. 'We have known for a long time that the Warburtons brand would work in broader areas,' says Warburton. 'We didn't think it was right to launch in the premium crisp market as there are a lot of able operatives in it, but we think we can turn the baked-crisp market on its head. If we get traction, then we will support it with a £10m marketing budget.'

There is also the issue of achieving market leadership in the bread category in the South. Warburtons has appointed branding consultancy Smith & Milton to work on its strategy, identity and packaging, while Premier Foods-owned Hovis has launched its own marketing push. It is a battle that Warburton describes as 'nip and tuck'.

In addition, he admits he might need a different approach in the capital, showing a distinctly Northern suspicion of cosmopolitan London. 'I don't think the North-South divide exists, but there is a divide inside and outside the M25,' he says, pointing to London's more mixed population, which brings with it different consumer tastes. 'It means the bestselling loaf inside the M25 is not the same as outside.'

In pursuit of this goal, there are things Warburton is not ready to sacrifice. For example, he attributes the company's rise to the top to retaining premium pricing.

'Our competitors, Allied Bakeries and Premier Foods are very good and very able,' says Warburton. 'It is not hugely important to us if we are growing 1% or 5%, just as long as we are growing.'

In the wake of Cadbury's sale to Kraft, Warburton is keen for his company to become one of Britain's few household-names, according to Howard Milton, chairman of Smith & Milton. 'He uses the fact that Warburtons has, so far, operated largely under the radar to his advantage,' he says. 'If the past 20 years was spent building an excellent family brand, his next decade will be to cement Warburtons' position as one of the great British brands.'

Warburton is not resting on his laurels and insists retirement is not on the agenda. He will consider his position at 60, but the prospect of being separated from the family business clearly alarms him. He says: 'The danger of buying a house on a beach in Barbados is, as a friend said to me: "When you get there, there's nothing there."'

There could be a deeper motive behind his reluctance: the absence of an heir apparent. His four children, aged 12 to 21, are too young to show an interest in the family firm. Although Warburton joined the business in his early 20s, he describes it as being 'different then'. He adds: 'If they were sufficiently experienced and interested, we'd be delighted. Or it might be the best option for someone outside the family to run it and still roll out a family member for the ads.'

Whatever happens to the brand, then, it seems that consumers can expect to see plenty more of the Warburton clan.

1987: Joins Warburtons as national account manager, rising to marketing
1991: Assumes control of company with cousins Brett and Ross
2001: Elected chairman

Family: Wife and four children
Favourite car: Land Rover
Holiday destination: Barbados
Favourite brand: Red Bull
Favourite ad:


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