Ironically for a company that would become a world leader in branding, for the first 50 years, the Rowntree family thought that quality products should and would sell themselves. But they gradually recognised that strong marketing campaigns, showcasing outstanding brands such as Black Magic, After Eight and KitKat, could transform the company’s fortune. George Harris was the innovative and visionary director who led Rowntrees through these fundamental changes to become one of the UK’s most successful companies.
Courage and determination
Harris became part of the extensive Rowntree family when he married Frieda, daughter of Frank Rowntree, Seebohm’s cousin. The young couple met at the LSE, where his flair for mathematics and accounting became immediately apparent. He joined the family firm in 1923, working for F.G. Fryer – a senior board director, with responsibility for sales and distribution. Fryer was an exacting boss, and a man of formidable talent who expected much of his staff.
This did not deter Harris, who was used to taking responsibility. The First World War had seen him rise to the rank of Major; he was awarded an MC and bar for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty”. He understood the need for determined leadership. His experiences had taught him to trust his own judgement.
Rowntree & Co had benefitted greatly from the commitment to ‘scientific management’ during its first fifty years. Nevertheless, the mid 1920s saw the company seriously challenged. Cadbury’s were dominating confectionery sales in the UK, with their hugely successful Dairy Milk bar selling in record numbers. Rowntree was caught between rising costs and falling demand. Impossible as it may seem now, the firm came uncomfortably close to failing.
One measure to turn the company round was the establishment of the York board in early 1931, to focus expert attention on the York factory and business. George Harris was given direct responsibility for ‘block chocolate’ (what we now call chocolate bars) but also worked on ‘chocolate creams’ (chocolate assortments). Harris was very well-placed. He mined his knowledge of marketing and consumer research and built on his experiences in the American market. He had a clear understanding of how Marks and Spencer had generated impressive growth in the 1920s. He understood that, with a semi-luxury good like confectionery, demand for it had to be both created and maintained by advertising.
In particular, Harris worked closely with the newly founded UK branch of J. Walter Thompson’s advertising agency. His first major success was with Black Magic. Over 7000 people were interviewed about their preferences: shopkeepers provided the key evidence that most boxes of chocolates were bought as gifts – especially from men to women. The now familiar black and white box was chosen from over 50 designs. Its Art Deco simplicity was very different from most other contemporary chocolate boxes. Despite its elegance, its plainness made it a relatively cheap box to produce. Black Magic was launched in 1933 and, backed by a hugely successful advertising campaign, became an immediate success.
Harris persuaded the York Board that trying to compete directly with the ‘Cadbury’s Dairy Milk’ bar that then dominated the UK market was wasting effort and money. The research he had commissioned made it clear that Rowntree’s needed to offer customers an alternative. Harris did better than that: 1935 saw the launch of two alternatives – Aero and KitKat. By 1936, at last Harris could report that after a decade of difficulties, Rowntree’s were finally threatening Cadbury’s market leadership in chocolate bars. KitKat in particular was ground-breaking, being sold as a ‘snack’ rather than just a treat. The advertising was so successful that many of us still connect the idea that having a break should involve biting into a KitKat.
Rowntree’s financial situation was transformed, with the new products providing hugely enhanced cash-flow. This in turn permitted further investment in consumer research and properly targeted advertising.
Success led to success
1937 saw the launch of Dairy Box. Harris employed the same analysis of customer desires as had served Black Magic so well: Dairy Box was an immediate success. In May 1938, Smarties came onto the market. Sold loose at first, research indicated that making them especially attractive to children, with little boxes sold at (just about) pocket-money prices, would clinch their place in the market. Eighty years on, we all realise how successful these ideas have been.
The decade might have ended with yet another triumph – the arrival of Polo mints. However, with war looming, Rowntrees delayed the launch until hostilities were over.
George Harris clearly performed something close to a miracle. His ideas, grasp of how to understand market forces, consumer research and advertising became a benchmark. This not only prevented the company from failing in the 1920s but also carried it through the difficult days after the Second World War, when rationing bit hard into confectionery companies’ room for development. However, he was not an easy man to work with. Totally committed to his job, hugely opinionated and self-confident, he expected a lot of his peers and his staff. He concentrated entirely on his work in the Cocoa Works and had no time for public service, unlike most of his fellow directors. Harris often inspired great loyalty and respect but some people found his approach unhelpfully contentious.
Seebohm Rowntree’s common sense
Harris was very different from many of the other Rowntree directors. Initially, Seebohm Rowntree described him as “intensely conceited”. But Seebohm, as Company Chairman, soon recognised that Harris was “extremely able… with a sensitive appreciation of the possibilities and needs of the market.” Equally relevant, Seebohm identified that Harris had “tremendous drive” – which was essential in the task of pulling Rowntree away from the financial abyss.
Seebohm exercised great tact and foresight in persuading his fellow directors to work with Harris, annoying though some of them found him. Seebohm said robustly, “I think there is something … wrong with us if we cannot fit in a rather difficult man….(who) has real power (and) value to the Company.”
Seebohm Rowntree realised that Harris – though not an obvious fit for the Rowntree Board – was exactly what the company needed. And he was right to believe that Harris would make it his life’s work to see Rowntree become one of the world’s most successful confectionery makers. The end of Harris’ career was sadly marked by exhaustion and ill health and he died relatively young.
George Harris is now little remembered – even in York – and yet many thousands of Rowntree employees owed the continued prosperity of the company to his determination and vision. And millions more continue to enjoy the brands developed in the remarkable decade when KitKat, Black Magic, Dairy Box and Smarties were first offered to British chocolate lovers.
It is often pointed out that when Nestlé purchased the Rowntree company in 1988, one of the company’s key strengths was in its ability to manipulate brand in marketing.
Ralph Kaner, George Harris and the Marketing Revolution at Rowntree, Borthwick Paper 125, 2015.