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Crosse & Blackwell: Brand Profile

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Crosse & Blackwell was for many years the trading name for a portfolio of peculiarly British foods, including Branston Pickle, Gale's honey, Sun-Pat peanut butter, Sarson's vinegar and Rowntree's jelly, as well as a variety of sauces and prepared foods marketed under the Crosse & Blackwell brandname. Owned by Nestle for many years, the UK business was sold in 2002 to Premier Foods. The Crosse & Blackwell brand name was sold on by Premier and, playing on its heritage from the 1960s and 1970s, is still used in the UK by Symington's for a range of rice, pasta, noodle and soup dishes. The US-based preserves business was sold separately in 2004 to JM Smucker, which has resurrected it for an expanding line of Crosse & Blackwell sauces, relishes and jellies, as well as its own version of Branston Pickle. Nestle retains rights to the Crosse & Blackwell name in a handful of other global markets, such as South Africa.

The original core of the Crosse & Blackwell portfolio was a pickle and condiments company established in London's Soho area in 1706. Just over 100 years later, in 1819, Edmund Crosse and Thomas Blackwell set up in business as traders in foodstuffs. They acquired the Soho pickle factory in 1829 and this became the starting-point for what was eventually a mammoth British business. In 1837 they received an endorsement from Queen Victoria, and that Warrant of Royal Appointment gave a substantial boost to their business. By the late 19th century, Crosse & Blackwell was the world's biggest preserved foods manufacturer, preserving and importing foods from the colonies while also exporting traditional British fare to the furthest reaches of an ever-extending empire. It was among the first companies in the world to successfully pack foods in airtight tins, greatly extending their shelf-life, and C&B gradually acquired a string of other businesses including Sarson's Malt Vinegar (first marketed by Thomas Sarson in 1794) and Branston Sweet Pickle, a homemade delicacy first created a few years earlier by a Mrs Graham and her daughters in the village of Branston, Staffordshire. 

At the turn of the century, Crosse & Blackwell extended its range from savoury pickles to tinned fruit and vegetables. By the 1950s, it was one of the biggest and best-known British food brands. In 1960 the company was acquired by Nestle. At the time, the Swiss group was known primarily for its freeze-dried milks and coffee, but it had moved into culinary products for the first time in the late 1940s with the purchase of continental brand Maggi. The British company formed the bridgehead for an assault on the UK market. In the years that followed, C&B introduced a wide range of family foods including soups, ready-to-eat pasta, baked beans, ketchup and salad cream. Yet although several of these new products achieved modest success, none was able to match the popularity of C&B's best-known product, the celebrated Branston Pickle. That brand has retained its domination of its particular niche for more than 50 years, not least as a result of one memorable campaign which ran from 1972 to 1985, urging consumers to "Bring Out the Branston". By the late 1990s, Branston enjoyed around 75% share of the UK's �24m sweet pickle market. A comparatively rare success among the other C&B products was its Waistline low-calorie salad cream which took leadership of this niche sector.

Meanwhile Nestle's food portfolio expanded with the addition of other food businesses including Findus, Carnation, Buitoni and Rowntree-Mackintosh. The latter purchase made a considerable difference to Nestle's UK portfolio, bringing with it a further selection of traditional British foods as well as confectionery. Gales, for example, was Britain's oldest branded honey, first established in London during World War I by RW Gale. That business was later taken over by Maconnochie Brothers, and moved to Derbyshire in 1940 after the London factory was bombed. Maconnochie was in turn acquired in 1959, by confectioners HS Whiteside, who already sold a range of branded peanuts under the Sun-Pat brandname. They began to manufacture Sun-Pat peanut butter during the 1960s. In 1987, Sun-Pat was acquired by Rowntree Mackintosh, becoming Rowntree-Sunpat. The confectioner was already established in non-confectionery foods - it had first introduced its Rowntree's Jelly in 1923 in a range of ten flavours (including greengage, later dropped). 

Following Nestle's acquisition of Rowntree, the group's various culinary brands were gradually consolidated under one roof. However several of the brands struggled to keep up with the fast-growing chocolate business. The Crosse & Blackwell brand, in particular, came to be regarded as old-fashioned, and increasingly down-market. In the early 1990s, the brand was caught in a vicious price war between the main UK supermarkets who began offering private-label versions of baked beans, ketchup and other foods at almost absurdly low prices. Still trailing Heinz, the market leader in this sector, C&B gradually abandoned all of its tinned foods between 1993 and 1995. Yet while the main C&B brand faded, niche favourites Gales, Sun-Pat and Rowntree's Jelly held onto their market. In 1998, Nestle took a chance on giving Crosse & Blackwell a full relaunch, selling off the Findus frozen foods brand, and repackaging its existing frozen meals under the C&B label. A �26m marketing campaign set out to re-establish the brand as something more than a faded family favourite, and highlighted those familiar niche favourites as part of the extended C&B family. Crosse & Blackwell Snackstop pot snacks were introduced in 1998, chasing market leader Pot Noodle.

Although this relaunch achieved a certain level of success, Crosse & Blackwell continued to maintain an uncomfortable fit within the portfolio. Although a steady shelf-filler in the supermarkets, it remained second (or lower) in the market to other players, with only limited international appeal. In early 2002, Nestle confirmed that it had put the entire British portfolio up for sale. After several months of negotiations the entire portfolio was acquired by Premier Foods for a price understood to be around �135m. For a while Nestle retained control of the Crosse & Blackwell brand for a range of sauces and preserves, mostly in the US. These were sold in 2004 to JM Smucker.

Last full revision 14th December 2013

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