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Last Updated: Friday, 24 November 2006, 08:17 GMT
The conservative consumers' antidote
By Anthony Reuben
Business reporter, BBC News

Robert Opie's love for brands cannot be exaggerated

Most people who spot a ridiculous new food product on the shelf in the supermarket are able to just say "yuk" under their breath and get on with the shopping.

Robert Opie cannot.

Since he started collecting wrappers and packaging in 1963, he has forced himself to taste such questionable innovations as Christmas pudding flavour Kit Kats and Ovaltine's instant omelette.

"Having paid some horrendous sum of money, you feel obliged to at least try it," he says.

"I did taste a can of corned beef once that was at least 50 years old.

"It tasted a little soapy, but was still fit for human consumption."

A small proportion of Mr Opie's collection has now been put together to make the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in London's Notting Hill.

New brands

It is a tribute to what might happen if you never throw anything away.

Top 10 grocery products/years
1. Coca Cola - 106
2. Warburtons - 22
3. Walkers Crisps - 58
4. Cadburys Dairy Milk - 101
5. Hovis - 116
6. Nescafe Instant - 68
7. Andrex toilet tissue - 64
8. Kingsmill - 16
9. Robinsons - 69
10. Lucozade - 77

Source: ACNielsen

The museum groups exhibits by era and then shows how the packaging of individual products have developed over time.

Mr Opie's historical gems range from chocolate left over from the Boer War (which even he has not tasted) to a selection of spin-off board games from 1980s television shows such as Jim'll Fix It.

Unlike Mr Opie, most people appear a great deal less willing to try something new.

Indeed, the top 10 branded items bought in UK grocers have been around, on average, for 70 years.

Only two of them are are younger than 50 years and only three have been introduced since the end of World War II.

Mr Opie is not surprised that the top brands are so old.

"There's an advantage to being first on the market," he says.

"But it's not easy staying at the top.

"There's a conundrum for a brand with trying to maintain your heritage status without seeming old-fashioned."

And it is not all about trying to appear up-to-date.

Coke cans
Coke is one of the oldest brands on the best-seller list

Companies bring out their best-selling brands in different forms.

Yet, the greatest risks come for those who introduce entirely new brands.

"We estimate that three out of four new brands launched in the UK fail," observes Jasmine Montgomery from the consultants Futurebrands.

"So, of course, many companies are looking at how to try and minimise that risk."

One way to minimise the risk is to be creative with existing brands instead of introducing new ones.

"The reason that these brands have been around so long is because they have innovated," says Ms Montgomery.

"They've kept up with the times, they've brought out the new flavour variants, the new packaging and the new retail channel innovations."

That's how we ended up with squeezy Marmite, green ketchup and Maltesers Chocolate Malt Drink.

Stretching the brands

Yet making changes to an existing brand is far from risk-free.

Robinsons has remained a popular brand since it was launched in the late 1930s

"Kit Kat have been trying too hard," according to Mr Opie.

"They've been bringing out varieties to try to gain shelf space, but it may damage the brand," he adds, pointing to the "repellent" Christmas pudding-flavoured Kit Kat as an example of the brand being stretched too far.

Another classic that has seen some fundamental tampering is Marmite, which has recently brought out its squeezy bottle.

Unilever, which makes Marmite, says that people kept e-mailing the company and suggesting it, but Marmite customers are notoriously conservative.

Apparently, when the metal top to the jar was abandoned in favour of a plastic one in 1983, some people decanted their new Marmite into the old jars.

Some enthusiasts certainly think the thinner product in the squeezy jars is "just wrong".

Marmite's recent marketing has been built on inspiring strong opinions, so such responses might be both expected and desirable.

Perishable packaging

All is not lost for new brands, though.

Many retailers are keen to sell local products.

They may not show up on the national statistics, but can still make an impact.

"We've certainly seen [successful] local products, like in the Lake District where a local ice cream outsells Haagen Dazs," says Judi Bevan, author of Trolley War.

"Local products can do very very well," she says, insisting that supermarkets are generally keen to adopt products that have proven themselves.

If a product ends up on the supermarket shelves, you can be sure Mr Opie will be dashing out to buy it - particularly to get his hands on the packaging.

This man, who can start a sentence with "It was only the other day when I was looking through my collection of Dettol bottles", is currently wrestling with the problem of how to preserve examples of the new Sainsbury's organic produce packaging, which biodegrades as fast as a banana skin.

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