Brand innovation helps keep sausages sizzling

Annie Dow, director of Dow Design with Todd Heller. Photo by the New Zealand Herald.
Annie Dow, director of Dow Design with Todd Heller. Photo by the New Zealand Herald.
At this time of year, New Zealand meats company Hellers is busy supplying a festive population with snarlers, shaved meats and hams.

Founder director Todd Heller said through Christmas and January holidaying Kiwis had late breakfasts or brunches, with sausages and bacon popular.

Fans of what Mr Heller says was New Zealand's largest producer of sausages, bacon and ham might notice changes this year. The company, which started in 1993 is going through rebranding accentuating the Hellers' roots as a family butcher, to differentiate itself.

The packaging has short stories from Mr Heller, who is a fifth-generation butcher and started with his own shop in New Brighton, in 1985.

The Heller family is originally from Germany. Gorg Heller emigrated to New Zealand during the gold rush of the 1880s and started supplying miners with smallgoods from his shop in Arrowtown.

The "NZ's Butcher" tag brings to mind the nostalgic days of friendly, local suppliers of fresh produce, says Hellers' design company, Dow Design. The revised branding was introduced in early December, beginning with the most popular Christmas ranges of ham and shaved meat.

This new phase for the company will also have an added emphasis on free-farmed products.

The large Christchurch employer has 320 staff at its Kaiapoi plant and a further 130 in Auckland at Wiri.

A week before the earthquake, Prime Minister John Key opened the company's extended Christchurch headquarters, a 6000sq m world-class plant in Kaiapoi.

Asked why the number one player in smallgoods and the number three in bacon and ham felt the need for rebranding, Mr Heller explains: "Growth flourished through the 2000s but by 2009 our innovations had been imitated and the market was awash with 'like me' packaging. We'd lost the 'shelf stand-out' we once had and realised it was time to get innovative again."

His design company of 10 years, Dow Design, carried out a brand audit, speaking to the supermarkets and consumers. Feedback advised going down the heritage route.

Dow Design first became involved with Mr Heller in 2000 when, after a successful promotion from New Brighton butcher to supermarket supplier, he was looking for some direction with his brand. His rise to supermarket supplier had been swift.

"We were the first to do added-value products. We were the first to bring in Chinese honey for meat cuts like ribs and kebabs."

After amalgamating with Tasty Bacon to become Heller Tasty, Mr Heller madea point of attending a marketing conference looking for inspiration.

"At the time, Hellers was a distant third to our leading competitors in the meat sector. I knew we didn't have a strong brand and was searching for guidance for my next move.

"When I listened to Annie Dow tell the audience of what her company had done for Anchor, I knew this was the person I needed to work with to bring the Hellers brand to where I wanted," Mr Heller said.

Hellers was one of those typical New Zealand businesses which grew very quickly in the early days, says Ms Dow, director of Dow Design.

"The business had become unwieldy.

"A lot of New Zealand businesses continue to stay like that. It takes more visionary businesses to want a great brand and design," she says.

The advice from Dow had helped his company grow eight times over since that time, from a $20 million annual turnover to $158 million, Mr Heller said.

"Within two years, we had won the 'best Sausage in New Zealand' award and bought the Sensational Sausages company.

"Within three, we were the number one player in the [sausage] market and available in every supermarket in the country."

But companies have to reinvent and step back continually, working on the brand, not sit back and say "it's done", Ms Dow says.

"Competitors copy him," says Ms Dow. Hellers' main competitors are Premier Beehive and Kiwi Bacon.

"The market is changing phenomenally. House brands are growing in supermarkets. If the brands are not strong with their voice, if they're not standing out, it's like death in the middle at the moment," Ms Dow says.

"The trade likes to see brands reinventing, too. It's important."

The design specialist is encouraging Hellers to be sustainable and to expand its free-farmed products, which guarantee consumers that the animals are not kept in stalls or crates, and the pigs live outside or in eco-barns.

While health experts are recommending people cut down on processed meats, Mr Heller says: "Our business is not like Coca-Cola. We eat processed meats in moderation. People don't have sausages every day.

"Our business is about adding value to supermarkets.

"We can offer new products ... new bacon products, new free-farmed products."

Of Heller's 450 staff, 50 work in research and development and sales.

He thinks Hellers could teach other countries a few things, too.

The United Kingdom would be an obvious export target but the majority of inquiries are from Asia, and that's the most obvious market for Hellers, says the founder.

The Malaysians like Hellers meatballs and breakfast sausages and the hotel chains are asking for his bacon.

Mr Heller is unlikely to look for public money when he expands overseas. He is adamant he wants to stay private.

Succession should not be a problem. Son Brydon is also a trained butcher and the company's marketing co-ordinator, while daughter Fraeona, a former restaurateur, is head chef and involved in quality assurance.

He feels well supported by his other shareholders: investment company Rangatira, 51% owned by the JR McKenzie Trust, has a half-share in Hellers, Heller owns 30% and his business partner, Nick Harris, is the remaining shareholder.


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