The Role of Culture and Brand-Building ~ Oreo in the UK market

By Dian Hasan | February 25, 2010

It’s always intriguing to see how brands go international. How they leave the comfort zone of their local (domestic) market, and make a mark in other people’s turfs. In the arena of brand-building, this is easier said than done, and every brand (regardless of size of local market success level) falls under the same rule: KNOW THE CULTURE!

Culture determines consumer behavior, habits, taste, and a myriad of other traits that can make or break a brand.

Here’s an interesting look at the cookie (that’s “biscuit” to you, old chap!) market in the UK, and how Oreo, one of America’s most recognized brands, intends to break into the market.

To the naked eye, the tradition of enjoying cookies/biscuits in the US and the UK, appear similar. But digging a bit under the surface, it’s clear that both markets are very different. Especially in the UK, where “tea & biscuits” are deeply ingrained in the society. A living tradition that has been passed down generations, from the days when tea was introduced from Asia, and the Brits needed something to accompany this relaxing beverage.

Here’s a look at the original story on Oreo in the UK, by Tom Geoghegan, BBC News.

Oreo cookies are as much a part of the traditional American upbringing as Coca-Cola and hotdogs. But will British shoppers be won over by these biscuits from afar?

Boy and dog in Oreo advert

The British biscuit is more than a sweet snack – it is one half of a venerable institution. And chief among the affections of British biscuit lovers is the custard cream, which last year was voted the nation’s favourite.

Down Under, the Tim Tam has a similar grip on public affections while in America it’s the Oreo cookie that holds sway.

But Oreo’s makers, Kraft, have broader ambitions. What’s become the biggest biscuit brand in China is now threatening to colonise British biscuit tins.

For a few years the black and white “sandwich cookie” has been available in Sainsbury’s. Now it’s being launched across the UK, on the back of its first (£4.5m) UK advertising campaign.

Unlike in China, where Kraft cut the sugar content because locals found it too sweet, the British Oreo is the same recipe that has conquered the US. The only difference is that it’s been repackaged in the long barrel form familiar to British shoppers.

So can this Goliath of a global brand crack what is the largest biscuit market in Europe? After all, Brits’ biscuit tastes – digestives, Rich Tea, Hob Nobs, malted milk, fig rolls – are notoriously patriotic.

And, as any Brit who has compared a Hershey’s bar with a bar of Dairy Milk, will know, the American sweet tooth has a different pitch.

Jocelyn McNulty, director of UK Biscuits from Kraft Foods, says the British reaction has so far been positive.

“Oreo is a bit different. It’s dark-coloured because of the high percentage of cocoa in the biscuit and consumers may look at it and think ‘That looks different’.”

‘A family moment’

But when they taste the vanilla cream and the dark biscuit, then dunk it in milk, they’ll be won over.

Dunk it in milk? This routine is central to the Oreo brand. The slogan is “twist, lick, dunk” and the television advert features a boy demonstrating the technique to his dog.

“This ritual that comes with Oreo makes it more than a biscuit,” says Ms McNulty. “The ritual elevates it to a moment of child-like delight and a warm family moment. ‘Twist, lick and dunk’ is the language we use. Around the world, ‘twist, lick and dunk’ is Oreo.”

It’s not an attempt to patronise, she adds, but a way of underlining with humour what makes Oreos special.

“We had to be very careful. We’re not giving usage instructions here. We’re not saying ‘This is how you have to eat an Oreo’.”

The fact this is an American firm is not really relevant, she says, but Oreo should “invigorate” the British market. Its key targets are mums with children aged six to 12.

But it’s a tricky time in the UK biscuit market, which grew by less than 1% between 2001 and 2006. This stagnation was blamed on shoppers being more health-conscious.


Ms McNulty couldn’t say exactly how much sugar was in an Oreo but she says two biscuits are within “recommended daily levels”.

“Mums are the gatekeepers of snacks and treats and what we’ve seen from our research is that biscuits are an important part of family life, and we trust mums to manage the balance of snacks and treats in the household.”

But self-appointed biscuit expert Stuart Payne, author of A Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down, says he was under-whelmed and disappointed by them.

“It’s a very sickly-sweet, dark biscuit and I was expecting more from it”. And it takes itself too seriously, he says of the ad slogan.

“It’s like someone rudely coming into your home and telling you how to arrange your settee. It arrives here and says: ‘I’m Oreo and this is what you do with me.’

“Well we’ve had biscuits for a long time and we know what to do.”

He doubts it will succeed in the UK because in his opinion it has too much sugar, he says, which is the latest ingredient under scrutiny by health watchdogs after the battles over salt and hydrogenated fat.

But this is more than a biscuit, says Jonathan Gabay of Brand Forensics, it’s a part of American life.

“The brand positions itself as much as crucial to wholesome family life as a glass of milk is for growing kids. In fact many school teachers in America use Oreos to explain basic maths.

“Now the cookie is coming over to the UK, again positioned as a wholesome treat you would want to give to kids.

“I have to ask how long it will be until we too will be families whose values are partially defined by a biscuit that is 29% cream, 71% cookie and 100% good old family values.”

Biscuits are nostalgic and your favourite ones stay with you as an adult. Generations of Americans remember the good old days having an Oreo and milk.

Without any history in the UK, they can build that brand persona for the next generation through advertising, believes Mr Gabay. And many British youngsters will have an awareness of the brand already, through American soaps.

“The closest thing we have to it is the Milky Bar kid but Oreos are stronger. The Milky Bar kid has to ‘ride’ out to the sweet shop to find his ‘gold’. Oreos comes to the home and so they also win the tacit approval of Mum and Dad, which is acceptable as the kid is still pre-teenage.”

Inspiration: BBC News


About dianhasan

Brand Storyteller, Travel Writer, Speaker, Creative Writer & Thinker - avid observer of randomness in everyday life - Sustainable Business, Eco Matters, Sustainable Urban Issues, Architecture, Heritage Conservation, Innovation & Brand-Strategy, Cross-Cultural Communications, Travel, Tourism & Lifestyle.
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