Paul McLaughlin tells BQ about the return of Scotty with its iconic doggie logo and commitment to fresh vegetable produce from across Scotland.
Sitting in his airy Bellshill office on a rare sunny summer afternoon, Paul McLaughlin is in wind-down mode, looking forward to a trip to London to take in the Olympics.
Over the next few weeks Team GB would go on to win 29 gold medals, our athletes thrilling the nation and making us proud to be British – pride that the managing director of fresh food producer, Scotty Brand, can identify with.
Lanarkshire-based Scotty Brand, a wholly owned subsidiary of Albert Bartlett, the UK’s leading grower and packer of potatoes, has experienced its own winning streak this year, landing the healthy eating award in the Scotland Food & Drink Excellence Awards and also marketing campaign of the year in the prestigious Re:fresh awards for the fresh food industry in London.
The company has also been riding high on the back of its high-profile tie-in with Disney/ Pixar’s much-acclaimed film, Brave.
Softly spoken and unassuming, McLaughlin says: “We’ve had an incredible year. Scotty Brand is really making its mark on the industry and we’ve seen our sales more than double this summer alone.
“That’s really something when you consider the awful weather our growers have had to contend with so our success is a real testament to their commitment.
“We’ve invested over £1m in the Brave campaign which saw us make our UK television debut and it’s a lot of money for a company that’s still very much in its infancy. But that’s what brands have to do – you have to act and behave like a brand and that means investment in above-the-line activity.
“In this case, the real bonus is that the film’s been fantastically well received and really struck a chord with people so we’re looking forward to the second tranche of the promotion around the DVD launch in September, October and November.”
The Brave campaign, suggests McLaughlin, has worked so well because there is a prize for everyone.
A reward features on every pack of Scotty Brand potatoes and carrots as well as its seasonal Ayrshire new potatoes and soft fruit, available in Morrisons, Tesco, Whole Foods Market and Asda.
It engages with consumers who have to enter the unique code on each pack on the Scotty Brand website, where the film’s heroine, the feisty Merida, fires her arrow at a target to reveal a reward.
“Brave ties in so well with our own family values – we’re a family company, our growers are families and our produce is fresh and natural and healthy,” says McLaughlin.
“The film shows Scotland at its glorious best and the great thing is that every pack’s a winner, be that one of the six family adventure holidays to Gleneagles Resort in Perthshire, private screenings of Brave, or other Brave and Scotty Brand goodies.”
Interestingly, it was the film-makers who approached Scotty Brand about the campaign. Albert Bartlett had previously linked up with Disney/Pixar and Toy Story 3 to run an on-pack promotion on its Rooster potatoes.
“We already had a history with them and they were keen to link in with a healthy product for Brave so it was a perfect partnership and an unbelievable opportunity for us,” he says.
“It underpins our brand values of freshness and provenance and sends out the message that produce from Scotland is natural and offers a guarantee of quality,” he adds.
“You don’t have to emblazon your brand with Saltires or thistles to get the provenance message across.”
McLaughlin may not show it outwardly but he is hugely passionate about the food and drink industry, and behind his quiet demeanour lies a steely grit and determination that has played a pivotal role not just in Scotty Brand’s remarkable growth but in raising the profile of the wider industry.
He was chief executive of industry organisation Scotland Food & Drink prior to joining Scotty Brand and his credentials include 15-plus years at The Coca-Cola Company where he was responsible for the commercialisation of marketing initiatives in Great Britain, Ireland, France, Holland and Belgium.
His decision last year to join Scotty Brand after three-and-a-half years at the helm of Scotland Food & Drink came as a surprise to many industry watchers yet McLaughlin describes the move as “an opportunity and challenge that I simply couldn’t turn down”.
“I’m aware that there were a few raised eyebrows at the time but I felt I’d made a big impact at Scotland Food & Drink and very much set the scene for its future,” he explains.
“It was a brand new organisation when I joined it back in 2007 so it was very much about engaging with food and drink companies, key industry players, politicians and other industry organisations, setting targets and convincing people that collaboration is the best way to achieve and sustain growth.
“The Scotty Brand opportunity came along when I was considering my future and while I had mixed feelings to a certain extent it was perfect timing, really, because I was able to leave when all our targets to date had been met, there was a great team in place and we weren’t in the middle of any key projects.
"I’d secured the financial stability of Scotland Food & Drink so it was a good point in the business cycle to move on.” Shoppers who frequent the major multiple supermarkets are becoming more familiar with Scotty Brand as it achieves more listings not just in Scottish stores but south of the Border, too.
As well as potatoes, carrots and prepared vegetables, there are strawberries, raspberries and three varieties of lettuce. And, of course, all produce is grown in Scotland and is seasonal. Meanwhile, consumers who want to learn more about where the produce comes from can read all about the Scotty Brand “family” on the company’s website.
Potatoes are grown in Ayrshire, Perthshire, Angus, Fife, Aberdeenshire and Ross-shire, carrots are grown in Aberdeenshire, berries in Perthshire and lettuce in Fife.
What’s more, there is information on where to buy Scotty Brand and what’s available seasonally, plus recipes. Scotty Brand itself, instantly recognisable thanks to its dog logo, is by no means a new brand.
It was founded back in 1948 and relaunched only two years ago after a long absence.
With all the excitement surrounding Brave, however, many consumers have been introduced to it for the first time and McLaughlin points to “amazing feedback” in recent months.
“It’s one of the really gratifying things, when people actually bother to send an email or put pen to paper to tell you how much they like your brand,” says McLaughlin.
“People are always quick to tell you when there’s a problem or if something’s not right.
To have them picking up the phone and wanting to speak to us is something I never would have expected – it’s a great feeling.
“We’ve also embraced social media and the internet because it’s how so many people of all ages communicate now,” he continues.
“Of course, we have to be aware that not everyone is part of the online revolution and we will continue to promote Scotty Brand via above and below-the-line activity.”
An engineering graduate from the University of Glasgow, McLaughlin can boast a wealth of commercial experience and an intimate knowledge of the Scottish food and drink industry – and that’s why Albert Bartlett’s managing director, Ronnie Bartlett, wanted him to drive Scotty Brand.
With the backing of Bartlett, one of the Scottish food and drink industry’s senior statesmen, McLaughlin has big plans for Scotty Brand.
“When I met with Ronnie Bartlett and heard his vision for the brand, I was blown away,” says McLaughlin.
“He spoke about premium, provenance and health – all of the things I was pushing at Scotland Food & Drink.
We were very much singing off the same hymn sheet.” While the company is focused on fresh produce, McLaughlin’s ambitions are to see Scotty Brand in every aisle of the supermarket with premium-quality Scotch beef, salmon, biscuits and shortbread, cereals and oils among a number of product categories he is currently exploring.
“I’m speaking to a lot of potential partners and it’s all looking extremely positive,” McLaughlin confirms.
“It isn’t going to happen overnight and we certainly won’t be rushing into anything because we have to make sure the product quality is right and we don’t want to do business with people who don’t share our passion and commitment.
“Scotty Brand’s values will always be centred on premium, provenance and health and, where fresh produce is concerned, seasonality. We won’t allow anything to compromise that. In a nutshell, we’re looking to take the best Scottish products under a brand umbrella that represents quality, health and provenance.
"It’s really quite a simple concept but one that has huge scope to develop with the right partners and help Scotty Brand make inroads into overseas markets.”
At times, McLaughlin appears not to fully appreciate just how far Scotty Brand has come in a relatively short time.
This time last year the brand was valued at just over £600,000. It’s now a £3m brand.
“Heading towards December we will be a brand worth £5m,” he says in his typically unassuming manner.
“In terms of growth we are very much on track and I would go as far as to say we are one of the fastest-growing food businesses in Scotland.”
Pressed on Scotty Brand’s rapid and impressive growth, McLaughlin smiles.
“Yes, we’ve done well,” he concedes. “We’re a very small team and while we operate as an independent business from an operations perspective we still rely on Albert Bartlett for our back office services including finance, IT and so on. However, as we grow as a business we will eventually take all of these functions in-house.
“We’ve had a great year and much of that can be attributed to Brave. The campaign has exposed Scotty Brand to new consumers and given us more confidence, and I’m delighted to say that most retailers absolutely get the premise of Scotty Brand and what it’s all about.
"We have a bit more work to do on this south of the Border but we are already demonstrating that the brand does sell on the basis that it is the source of good, quality food – in season – from Scotland.”
McLaughlin accepts that his aspirations for the company and its unique brand are ambitious.
“The first product outwith the fresh food sector will be critical for us – we have to get it absolutely right,” he says.
“I can’t yet say what that product will be but we will be making a lot of noise about it when the time comes.
“We’ve done a lot of research and it tells us that consumers want to eat more seasonal produce and more quality Scottish produce and what we are very, very clear on is that when a produce is out of season in Scotland, we don’t sell it.
“What I envisage is consumers looking forward to the new season of strawberries appearing in the supermarket – I want them to be thinking, ‘I can’t wait for the first Scotty Brand strawberries of the season to appear’.
“There’s no doubt that demand for Scottish produce is on the rise – people care about the provenance of their food and Scotland is seen as a guarantee of quality across a large number of categories.
Scotty Brand is very much seen as an innovation in the market because there are very few fresh produce brands at the moment.
It gives us that all-important point of difference and makes us stand out.” Discussing the wider Scottish food and drink industry, McLaughlin admits that “it’s a tough place to be” given the current economic climate although he points to encouraging export figures in sectors such as whisky.
It has been widely reported in the trade press that the big multiple retailers are increasingly pushing suppliers to the limit when it comes to negotiating deals but McLaughlin describes them as “supportive”.
“Working with retailers will always be challenging for everyone but we’ve experienced some terrific support, particularly from Asda, Morrisons and Tesco,” he points out.
“It’s a difficult business environment and there can be problems when a buyer you’ve forged a good relationship with over time moves on – it’s back to square one because you have to get to know the new buyer and build a relationship again.
“With fresh, seasonal produce it’s a slightly different ball game because you’re delivering a premium product and you have to get it there on time in perfect condition,” McLaughlin explains.
“This is something we are very good at and we work very closely with our growers in this area. If we can get our product into stores quickly, consumers notice the difference in terms of quality and are prepared to pay a little bit extra.”
The next chapter in the story of Scotty Brand may not be as exciting as Brave but it certainly promises to make its mark in the history of the Scottish food and drink industry with Paul McLaughlin in the starring role.