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"Marmite's Branding Playbook For Food Startups" — Keva Epale, Brand And Storytelling Strategist

Keva Epale (00:00): Hello, I'm Keva Epale. I'm a brand strategist and storytelling strategist, and this is my love letter to Marmite.

Sam Thorogood (00:21): Your brand plus an emotional connection with your audience equals success. This podcast explores that middle part. I'm Sam, a brand designer and your host. In each episode, I invite a guest to pick their favourite brand and unpack why it means so much. As they share, we learn what makes audiences tick. Not with strategy or theory, but through that undeniable proof of successful branding: emotion.

Keva Epale (00:58): I think I was in front of the television, and I come from a mixed background, like Africa. We moved to Europe, so I've had a really important English influence, specifically UK. So I've been used to UK advertisements, and I remember when I was a kid, I just stumbled on an ad, a really old ad of Marmite. A baby being fed by his mother. And funny enough, I went and I saw it a few days ago. That baby was enjoying his mother's milk. But the moment she started eating a piece of Marmite, he just blurbed it out. And I was in shock. I remember I was in shock because of how absurd it could be. But you know what? Even a child has opinions. So that was my first encounter with Marmite advertisement. And then I just kept following the years, just seeing how they developed that concept. And it's always like a pleasure to just see how absurd situations can just bring you into that Marmite story. So yeah, that's it. Nothing extraordinary. It's pretty usual, I would say.

Sam Thorogood (02:24): And talk to me more about that advert that you saw. And what kind of response it provoked in you. What was it telling you, even at that very young age? What was it telling you about this brand? What kind of world was it inviting you into?

Keva Epale (02:40): When you're a child, you don't think about branding at all. So I would say as a child, there was a sense of shock. Like, what is this? But I was amused. And if I look at it now with years of observing Marmite, I think it's today... It would be shocking, delightful. I think the most strong emotion is daringness. How daring a brand can go that far to state what they are and what they do.

Sam Thorogood (03:13): And can I ask, presumably you've tried Marmite. Are you a lover or are you a hater?

Keva Epale (03:20): Well, you'll discover that in my letter.

Sam Thorogood (03:22): Okay, we'll hold on for that. Tell me more about as you... As you kind of grew older, potentially as you became more and more interested in brands and branding, tell me more about why you kept on following this story of Marmite and why this particular brand took on this sort of special place in your life.

Keva Epale (03:48): I have to confess that I do have a lot of brand love letters. I don't know if it's the right term. So I love a lot of brands. But there's a circle of brands that just, because they are so disruptive and so out of the box, they kind of stand out. And Marmite is part of that batch. I think what keeps me interested in what they do and what they have been building is that daringness again, that capacity to state that we are Marmite, a UK brand that speaks to many other English-speaking countries, obviously. We have a precious recipe that is kind of undecodable. You like it or not. And we stand on that standpoint. That is us. You like it or not, but this is who we are. And we're going to work with that and we're going to build a new audience around that. And we're going to expand that message of love and hate, kind of challenging what it means to us. So I think that those kind of... I think the fact that they actually use even those words, those positioning, which is so... Human-centric, we're all about loving and hating. The fact that they are able to put all of that together under the same kind of umbrella, and it's okay. I think there's a lot of hope in that, in that strategy, in that building, in that daringness that we could learn from. And I think that's what I've been observing from them. And funny enough, a few years ago, when I started my blog series about branding, they were the first, like, one of the first brands that I wanted to kind of investigate their process and their way of building a brand. Because I felt like they are able to create friction and make it playful, engaging. And everybody's okay with the fact that you can be a lover or a hater. And they actually play with that capacity of transforming you from a hater to a lover. I love how they actually just create all those stories that are pretty... We can actually recognise ourselves, even if it's not specifically for Marmite. In France, we do have many brands that, as far as food is concerned, you will like it or not. But it's not that polarised. And if it is, they don't play with it so well. So I guess it's that playful daringness that I've always enjoyed still today, I think is brilliant.

Sam Thorogood (06:21): And talk to me more about how Marmite is perceived in France.

Keva Epale (06:26): Thank goodness. I wonder if they are perceived at all.

Sam Thorogood (06:30): Right, okay. It's a bit of a secret brand almost. It's not that well known.

Keva Epale (06:35): Yeah, it's true. I was pretty surprised when I saw a first jar, Marmite, when I was doing my groceries. I was like, what's happening here? But it was in a special section for international food. Not that in the spotlight. But I was surprised. It's not really not our thing. So I don't think... I don't think French people really know that much about Marmite. I think English people who live in France know a little bit more about the Marmite. And those who have been travelling, who have tasted it, but it's not something that we see on advertisements here in France. It's not a brand that has... We are not the core niche, even if I believe Marmite doesn't have a niche. But we're not yet that niche because there's something cultural.

Sam Thorogood (07:22): Do you almost perceive it as very linked to Englishness and to English culture? Is it... When you think of Marmite, do you almost think of Great Britain and this particular culture?

Keva Epale (07:38): Yeah, definitely. It's a really... It's celebrating and also questioning the British way of living. And perhaps that's why French people don't abide by that. It doesn't respond to certain codes. And I wouldn't go and kind of detail those codes, but there are many. There are many and complex ones. But I think there's something about Britain, about the British people and how they have a food culture. And just in that little jar, they're able to just say, you know what? Love us or hate us. This is us. And it does shed light on what the UK brand is all around the world. Even if Marmite is also in Australia, I think, because I have an Australian friend who speaks about Marmite. I can say, yeah, we love it, but it's not the same name. So it's kind of funny how it just links to the UK and to English-speaking countries in general.

Sam Thorogood (08:36): And it was very interesting around the time of Brexit, how Marmite were able to kind of playfully enter into that national discussion and national debate that was happening. They did a whole campaign around Brexit and saying that actually, you know, the advert would start and it would be all these people, these kind of talking heads talking about this issue that was dividing Britain. And they'd been going back a long time and certain people were for it, certain people were against it. And you just assumed it was a campaign for Brexit. And then at the end, there's a jar of Marmite. And so they're able to kind of playfully enter into the real divisions that are in this country. But it's almost like this is a division that unites us in a strange sort of way. Even if you're a lover or a hater, there's a weird sense of unity. Yeah. Yeah. There's a weird sense of unity that comes from being part of the, I don't know, the Marmite family almost.

Keva Epale (09:32): Yeah. It just, the many words that you just said that are in my letter. It's so funny because I really think that they really like, they have this, it's like a little lab of what it could be in a greater scale of how beyond branding, you can even think about politicians. Like, there are themes about society that are so, you have to choose these, choose that. And there's no middle. And if you go to the middle, then you don't belong to, you don't belong to any place. So the fact that it is possible even within a brand to use division in such a way and not to divide to rule, but to divide to unify, I think it's really interesting. We can learn a lot from them.

Sam Thorogood (10:13): Talk to me more about the brand's visual identity. So how the elements such as the logo, the typography, that kind of classic yellow and black colour scheme, how is that all working together for you to, to really speak to the public about what this brand represents?

Keva Epale (10:34): I think they have an ecosystem because the visual, let's go for the jar, for example, it's so cute. It has this vintage with a pot because the core of Marmite, because Marmite in French is marmite. And funny enough, I was saying in French, that states, c'est dans les vieux pots qu'on fait les meilleurs soupes. It's in the oldest pots that you have the best recipes or the best soups. So there's something about this, the fact that it's old, but it does the best. And it's represented really well in the packaging, on the, on the jar. And it has this, the type really takes place. And that's something that is always engaging. And I would say a kind of a magnet. The name is a great one. French people can understand it. They still wonder what is inside of it. I think that the design of the, of the, of the jar is sweet. It has, it's the different formats, but you can just pass it on. There's something really functional. So I think I really, that's something I really liked. And as far as the visual, the yellow, it just calls you, it's a warning. Okay. You just, there's something coming. So I think it works pretty well. Then you have that filmographic kind of universe. It's where you have acting, you have comedy, you have the jar being kind of a character within all of that. They really have created a DNA as far as advertising is concerned, but I don't remember exactly which agency work with them, but they really have a DNA of, about that. So that different kind of DNA is within Marmite. And then you have what they do with social media, the tastings that they do. Like it's, it's just like an ecosystem of, of those values that Marmite, kind of impose or infuse. They're able to play with them, following the different mediums, but keeping that vintage and making it contemporary, modern and challenging as well.

Sam Thorogood (12:45): Just a quick one to ask you for a small favour that you can do right now. If you haven't already subscribed to this podcast, I invite you to hit subscribe or follow, whatever it looks like on your podcast player. And that just means that you'll see new episodes of Branding Love Letters as they come out. If you have already subscribed to this podcast, here's what you can do right now: I invite you to leave a rating, a star rating, or leave a review, a short review, and that just makes a huge difference to what I can do with this podcast: the stories that I can tell and the insights that we can gain into emotional connections to branding. Thank you very much. Back to the interview.

(13:27): And as they've done that, have they done anything that's really surprised you?

Keva Epale (13:34): I would say one ad that really surprised me because they just keep going further and further in the concept... I don't know where you can stop them. They've started with a DNA test. And now just a few months ago, there was this kind of baby scan. You know, I think they really are great at using that scientific, scientific background because at the core of Marmite is something actually healthy. But if it's just a healthy food, like there are many things that we eat as supplements and they don't have any kind of, it's good for your health. Even if it tastes, even if it tastes, tastes bad, it's okay. You take it. It's for your good. Marmite is something else. There is a packaging around it. There's a story around it. And the way of eating it is kind of, is pretty different. You have to kind of put it on, on a toast. It's like in French, we say pâte à tartiner, like a, how do you say it?

Sam Thorogood (14:33): Like a, like you'd spread it on toast.

Keva Epale (14:37): Yeah, exactly. So it's not the same thing. Like there's a ritual there. There's a foodie kind of thing. So obviously because of that, the perception is different. So I would say the fact that they use that scientific background to the extension of food, really going into DNA tests and even mind control. I saw an ad a few, a few months ago about mind controls, like, okay, you really want to turn haters into lovers. So, because they're not like that, you can be a hater, but you're not really a hater. They're always challenging the audience that you're not really a hater. You have not really tasted Marmite to its full potential. So I like that. I like that. And it surprises me that, that they go further and further into this scientific check-in and who knows where they will be able to go after this again and again.

Sam Thorogood (15:36): Let's, let's say that there's a startup launching a food product. What, what lessons do you think they could learn from the way that Marmite have done their branding?

Keva Epale (15:48): Maybe there is something about with food. It's so personal to each one of us. We like it. We hate it, but it's not going to change the world. If you don't, you don't, if you don't like a special food brand, but Marmite has something about being a divisive brand, a brand of friction, and it's totally like part of their DNA. So for a new brand, a food brand that comes into the market and wants to play with this friction, it has to have at the core, a really controversial product. You know, the markets, people want to go vegan, people want to eat less meat. So there are many different tastes and, and different, um, um, saveurs. How do you say that in English?

Sam Thorogood (16:36): Uh, yeah. Kind of flavours.

Keva Epale (16:38): Exactly. That exists and that people will like or not, but if they don't like it, they wouldn't go on a fight. I don't want to be too good too much in that sense, but they wouldn't go like have a, have a league of people who say, Oh my God, we love what I go vegan. We just come with this. This, this is a startup and the taste is so weird, but we think it's going to save the world or something like that. Maybe it's not that ingrained in the product anymore. Maybe the timing of Marmite also allows them to have that legitimacy. Um, so I think brands who are entering the food industry, depending on the product, because at the end of the, on the end of the day, the product is really the star. If the product has a divisive and really controversial taste and a brand really believes that this is it, then they should try to create that friction. But, um, there are many food brands who want to appeal to what people actually like. So for example, if you want to go for them, many vegan products actually taste like meat or taste like chocolate or taste like butter. So, um, it tastes about familiarity. So I think, um, it's not easy for the core. The product doesn't have that audacity to stand out just for the taste of it. Um, but if it does, then for sure, they should look at what Marmite has been doing as far as positioning, as far as standing that positioning for longterm, because it's a journey, um, 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, the same thing. So they have not moved from that position. So I think younger brands, younger startups in the food industry should definitely look at what Marmite has been doing as far as longevity is concerned, how they have been able to take that concept and expand it. Uh, look at how the product, even if the recipe may have shifted a little bit, but it's still the same and see how people react to a new level of taste. I think from there, they'll be able to start looking at the market and the audience, um, with more daringness, hopefully.

Sam Thorogood (18:55): And you talk about the journey. How would you summarise your personal journey with Marmite?

Keva Epale (19:02): A rollercoaster, never know what you just never know what they're trying to bring on the table. Um, it's a journey of discovery of curiosity because at the core of it, there's really like the product you may like it or not, but what they have been able to do with a product that people may not like, that is what is disruptive. Because I guess, um, I see a lot of products that are like that many people are not like by many people, but it's not going to change or break the image of a company. Um, actually not really that. I think today, especially today, um, if someone doesn't like a product because there's so many, so much choice, they don't like it, they leave a review and they move on. It's not that dramatic. And, uh, for sure, the brand suffers from that. A lot of brands have to go back and change and refine, because of that feedback, um, so I've been able to see that Marmite is really, um, strong in the core manifesto. And for me, that's what is interesting in our journey is reminding all the time of that, of that core belief that this is who we are and we're just going to keep on with that.

Sam Thorogood (20:24): Keva, tell me more about you and where people can connect in with what you're doing.

Keva Epale (20:31): Awesome. Well, I am, I have a branding and storytelling studio in Paris, fully remote where I work with startups. I work with founders. I've worked with nonprofits and, um, and brands as well from Europe and the US so I do all direction illustration, um, and, um, a lot of, a lot of, a lot of writing as well. Um, my studio is kind of an ecosystem where you can have tools for creatives and entrepreneurs to kind of tackle their branding journey. And I do that by creating digital products, but also writing a lot about branding and writing a lot about my creative journey as well. So you can find me on, um, Keva Epale Studio. I'm sure Sam will give you the links.

Sam Thorogood (21:16): Yeah, I'll link it in the description.

Keva Epale (21:17): Find me on Substack. You have Your Branding Letter, the ones that are kind of dedicated to branding. And Your Creative Letter is the one that is more about the creative journey and, and helping younger creatives and myself just tackling their, you know, the universality of what it means to be a creative. Um, and voila.

Sam Thorogood (21:38): Voila. And can I just say to the people listening as well, I think Keva is a great person to connect him with. Um, you're, you're very prolific in what you put out. You put out a lot of content and a lot of value. And so for anyone that's wanting to learn more about branding, um, there's honestly, there's a treasure trove of resources. Um, so just, um, yeah, do check out, um, her stuff. Um, so finally, I would love to hear this love letter that you have written to Marmite.

Keva Epale (22:07): Dear Marmite, my love for your brand started years ago. Thanks to your storytelling. I love your ads and I've always had, I always find them hilarious and disruptive with that British way of living at its peak, pure daringness. As an admirer of the craft of advertising, it was always a treat to watch your latest creative ideas from DNA tests to baby scans, or even your latest mind control experiment. I remember the baby blurb: that was iconic. My goodness, you can really take the concept to galaxies. You're masters at stretching our perception of what is love and hate within the Marmite world and beyond. It can get philosophical at times, but that is your art. I don't know how you do that magic and sustain it for years, but you do it. It is always surprising to see what you come up with within that simple, but rich storyline. Are you a lover or are you a hater? Maybe the power of healthy division there. Please do share your brand playbook one day. I would love to read it. Can we talk about your visuals, your golden yellow and vintage packaging? They are priceless. It just mingles so well with the filmography, casting, and voice acting. Those voices are always one of a kind, by the way. You do elevate acting to exquisite comedy. Despite all my admiration for your filmography, work, and art, I had never tasted your precious recipe before. I heard it was bad, bad, bad, but I also heard it was good, good, good. So when the opportunity came to try it, I was quite excited. I told myself, it can't be that bad. Maybe they are just exaggerating, but I'm not sure. The result came out and... I was in shock because I discovered I was a hater of Marmite! My goodness. It was not subtle. It was a quick and frantic response. That moment could be in one of your ads with that iconic face and that tongue wondering, why on earth would I punish it? What was in the mind of the creator to allow this recipe? Unfortunately, I could not confirm our bond on the taste side. What do I do now? So many of us can ask that revealing question. What I did was to love even more your effortless capacity to invite me into your stories. You take a no and make an icon out of it. That is pretty cool.

(24:43): As a hater of Marmite, yes, I can say that now I feel I'm still part of the Marmite family. There resides your coup de maitre or your masterstroke. I am pulled through each time thanks to your magnetic power of friction. Moreover, it becomes a masterclass for any brand. I believe very few brands, and I even wonder if you have any competition on this storyline. I believe very few brands join under the same label. Those who love it and those who hate it, and it all becomes an 'it's all good' moment. I do believe politicians need to study your brand and study your power of inclusion. I believe that's what I do. I do believe politicians need to study your brand and study your power of friction. I do believe politicians need to study your brand and study your power of friction. Many changes can come out of it. Your universe is a journey, a reaffirmation, a claim of a standpoint. Your recipe is unique, it has character and we dare you to try it. In both scenarios, you are included. A strong, impertinent, disruptive, funny, so British, traditional yet modern brand story. One that has not changed for years. I'm always looking forward to stumbling on your latest ads and having a laugh. Yes, it does spark surprise and joy, despite the fact that I am a hater. You are an inspiring friction brand, artist of mediation and healthy division. I will keep observing your art of teaching and expanding the love and hate concepts to its paradoxes. After all, you pour your inspiration from both sides, from that complex batch of humans. You made of Marmite a wave, a comic revolution, a culture shock. Your brand has overpowered the product, and it serves its division, a divisive mission to unite. That is branding power. Thank you for refining my creative eye and understanding. The brand story you have been building is genius. Maybe one day, maybe one day, with a refined taste, I will give it another try. But after thought. No way. I'm going to stick to my results and stay a hater, but I'll always be watching you over. Thank you, Marmite. I'm sending you iconic vibes because you are an iconic brand. Voila.

Sam Thorogood (27:05): Well, Keva, thank you very much for letting us hear your branding love letter.

Keva Epale (27:09): Thank you so much.

Sam Thorogood (27:11): You're a hater. Wow. Game changer.

(27:15): Thanks for listening to Branding Love Letters with me, Sam Thorogood. I'm a brand designer for startups, creators, charities, eco projects and church plants. I'm on a mission: equip these pioneering brands to bring others onto their journeys. If you're interested, you can discover more at Oh, and big thank you to Thomas Thorogood for the music. Take it away, Tommy Boy.

Sam Thorogood | Pilgrimage Design