Having its ad voted this year’s festive favourite is the latest triumph for the Bolton baker that has risen to become Britain’s second-biggest grocery brand
It’s a long way from Bolton to Hollywood, in more ways than one. But when Jonathan Warburton decided to splash out on a Christmas publicity drive for the family baking business, it was to Los Angeles – and the Disney headquarters – that he went.
The result is a Christmas ad that has blown the usual favourites out of the water, thanks to the services of Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and the rest of the Muppets.
For those that have not seen it, the ad features the Muppets performing a version of their TV show’s theme tune, adapted to celebrate the launch of Warburtons’ Giant Crumpets. It is probably the first Muppets skit to feature references to Manchester’s Arndale shopping centre and Coronation Street.
And while the annual John Lewis schmaltzfest was struggling to tug on the nation’s heartstrings, Warburtons’ effort beat out a tattoo on our collective funny bone, winning a poll of viewers’ favourite TV spots.
“I have been amazed at the response,” said Warburton, who appears in the ad fending off the advances of an amorous Miss Piggy, driven wild with lust by his grip on the crumpet market.
It is not the first time the family-owned bakery has spent big to get stars on board for its ads.
The first such campaign featured Sylvester Stallone testing the limits of his acting ability as a heroic muscle-bound bread van driver fighting through the snow to bring baked goods to a desperate public. After a long time courting the Rocky star, Warburton finally pinned him down over dinner in a hotel somewhere between Leeds and Wakefield in West Yorkshire. He told the actor: “Look, Sly, this is a lot of money. I need to know you’re committed.”
The “delightful” Oscar winner agreed, clearly starstruck by meeting the chairman of Britain’s top bread company. “It’s just like talking to Rocky,” recalled Warburton.
But if it comes as a surprise to find this family business in the same corner as a Hollywood actor, it ought not to be, for Warburtons is a heftier player than one might imagine.
Not only is it Bolton’s biggest business but it is Britain’s second-largest grocery brand overall, with annual supermarket sales of £800m. That puts it second only to Coca-Cola in the UK.
By market share it is streets ahead of its rivals Hovis and Kingsmill, whose combined market share of 25% is just below the 26% who get their daily bread from the Bolton baker. The gulf is even wider in what Warburton refers to as rugby league territory around the M62.
Despite its size, Warburtons is far from immune to the fallout from a vicious war among the supermarkets, as discounters such as Aldi and Lidl force the likes of Tesco to cut prices. “It’s as tough now as I’ve ever known it,” said Warburton.
“The baking industry has much capacity available, more than is needed by the consumer, which puts the power in the hands of the retailer. And they’ll be very hard on you.”
Tesco recently reduced the number of Warburtons products it sells and does not stock the Giant Crumpets so beloved of Kermit, Miss Piggy and co. “My hope is that people will write in [because of the ad], saying they can’t find their Giant Crumpets, and they’ll bring them back,” says Warburton.
The family business has demonstrated the sort of staying power that should serve it well in negotiations with big business. Warburton and his two cousins are the fifth generation of the family to run the company. For comparison, only 3% of family businesses manage to extend their dynasty to a fourth generation.
In 1876, though, baking was just a way for Warburton’s great-great-uncle and -aunt to supplement the income for their grocery shop.
Back when they started selling freshly baked loaves, Bolton was a smoggy industrial maze of cotton mills and iron foundries, where most people would not dream of buying bread when it could be baked just as well at home.
But with the arrival of the 20th century, as women began going to work and the faster pace of life ate into the time available for home baking, the business grew and grew.
These days it has 4,500 employees, and last year it posted a £78m profit on revenues of £548m. About 1,000 trucks serve 18,500 retailers each day, while the company recently invested £50m in new baking equipment for the factory.
Down on the factory floor, that money is being put to work. Loaves in various states of readiness crisscross the warehouse, being moulded, cooled, heated, shaped, sliced and packaged by various shiny bits of kit. It is like a bread version of Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory, only with Lancastrians rather than Oompa Loompas.
Like many towns in this part of the world, the local economy suffered badly from the decline of industry and, in some ways, Warburtons is a microcosm of that. This one factory in Bolton churns out 1.2m loaves a week, part of an output of 12m across the business.
But while it has grown rapidly, the cast-iron links between the business and local people’s lives have faded. Where once there were bakers’ houses right up to the factory door, there is now a car park.
It takes only a handful of staff to run the impressive mechanised factory floor operation, where once teams of bakers did the job.
But those who do work here are relatively well rewarded. About 9% of profits go into a pot shared among staff just before Christmas, while the company already pays the £7.20 living wage and plans to raise that to the Living Wage Foundation’s higher minimum of £8.25.
The company has also spent its money in other ways, including a £25,000 donation to the Tory party in 2010. David Cameron even visited the Bolton bakery, where he struggled to raise much enthusiasm among the staff.
Warburton, who describes himself as a free-marketeer, admits it was an unusual decision for a company that is largely apolitical.
“It’s a Labour town historically and the company has never aligned itself but we felt at the time that the country needed a change,” he said.
“We’ve taken quite a bit of stick for it but we knew that when we put our heads above the parapet. We haven’t done it since.”