Whittaker's secret weapon

OPINION: By Bella Katz

Writing this fortnightly column about New Zealand brands in Australia is a tough gig.

Even for a hardened marketer like myself, I can't help but take personal interest in the companies I write about.

I'm nothing if not dedicated to my craft. I wash my dishes with Ecostore detergents, pack my kids' lunches into Sistema boxes, add a dash of A2 milk to my cup of tea and just this weekend took out a second mortgage to buy a fancy Blunt umbrella, which I plan to smugly use when Melbourne blows everyone else's $5.99 disposables straight to the bin.

Today, yet again, I went the extra mile in the name of authentic research and dashed across the road to Woolworths to buy a big, gold, coconut block of Whittaker's chocolate.

I'm looking at it right now as I ponder the future, on this side of the Tasman, of yet another $100 million New Zealand brand.

As Whittaker's have noted in previous articles, Australia has been a slower burner for them in terms of market share.

On one hand, as is often the case for New Zealand exporters, Australia is their largest export market. On the other hand its comparative Australian market share is very small.

Whittaker's are in the single digits compared with the behemoth chocolate brands led by Mondelez (34 per cent), Nestle Australia (18 per cent) and Mars Australia (13.7 per cent). IbisWorld recorded these figures as recently as June 2014, with Australian chocolate and confectionary manufacturing generating AU$4 billion revenue.

The brand itself has never been highly visible in Australia and the supermarkets have largely kept the bars on bottom shelves. I'm curious to know what brand awareness is among Australians and would guess it to be very low (especially when compared with expats' familiarity, largely driven by the ubiquitous peanut slab).

It wasn't until a recent visit to a New Zealand supermarket that I understood just how huge Whittaker's have become in the homeland. The entire chocolate shelf seemed to be dedicated to products and ranges I'd never heard of or seen here in Australia.

As I've written in the past, the might of Coles and Woolworths is driving a model in Australian supermarkets that falls predominantly into two streams.

One stream is the good old staples that people have been buying for years and will continue to do so. The other is the speedy onslaught of new (sub) brands, new products, new packaging, feeding our desire for new tastes and, just simply, new stuff. (In some cases this is old stuff rebadged in new ways, winning renewed interest.)

Whittaker's has clearly become a master of this model back home, launching numerous flavours and combinations and positioning itself as an innovator, a collaborator and a local favourite that has moved with the times.

With Nigella Lawson fronting the very recent campaign, Whittaker's has an opportunity to create more significant groundswell in Australia. They just need to make sure the Whittaker's name isn't eclipsed by Nigella's and that means spending more marketing dollars around their brand to back up the TV campaign.

Heck, maybe they should go for a full frontal attack and just embrace her recent media attention for drug dabbling. Cheeky ad spots where Nigella admits she now indulges in a far healthier habit, anyone?

Regardless of the future direction with (or without) Nigella, now that Whittaker's is sitting higher on Aussie shelves they need to hammer home the message to Australians that theirs is a chocolate worth sampling, buying and buying again. It'll be an expensive marketing investment, but I think well worth it.

Bella Katz is an Australia-based brand and marketing consultant and advises New Zealand companies exporting to Australia. She is also a New Zealand expat, calling Australia home for over a decade.

- Unlimited