Why oatcake maker’s going crackers for US market

Nairn oatcakes are readied for packing at Nairn's Peffermill factory. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Nairn oatcakes are readied for packing at Nairn's Peffermill factory. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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WE CALL them oatcakes and biscuits. They know them as crackers and cookies.

Now Scotland’s biggest manufacturer of traditional oaty treats has been forced to adopt the American names to sell them to puzzled American consumers.

In a case of lost in translation, Edinburgh-based Nairn’s has relaunched its famous oatcakes as Scottish oat “crackers” to prevent confusion across the Atlantic, where buyers tend to think of cakes as being sweet. Likewise, the firm’s range of sweet, fruity oat biscuits will be rebranded as American-style cookies.

According to Mark Laing, the company’s chief executive, sales of Nairn’s products have been consistently good in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where significant parts of the population are of Scots descent and understand the concept of oatcakes.

But the American market was quite different: “It is quite interesting to sell oatcakes to Americans, who are quite confused by the concept of oats and cakes,” said Laing.

“We have been through various guises, trying to help the US consumer understand the use implication for these products.

“We have now got to the point where we will call our oatcakes there Scottish oat crackers. We have called them all sorts of things, but we think this will be the key to unlock it. It is blindingly obvious when you get there.”

Marketing has already started. The Nairn’s website last week said: “Nairn’s is proud to share its naturally energising oaty food with you in the US. If you’re bored of traditional bread sandwiches, why not try popping a tasty topping on our natural, tasty oat crackers! If it is that afternoon pick-me-up you require, we also have a delicious range of healthy oat cookies which are perfect with your afternoon cup of tea or coffee – go on, try some, they taste so good!”

Susanna Freedman, a branding expert and the managing director of design firm Tsuko, said Nairn’s was doing the right thing to “conform”.

She said: “It sounds like the right decision to me. You have to evolve the brand to suit the culture rather than enforce a brand that is working elsewhere. It won’t dilute the brand identity here. They are just adjusting it in a way that is appropriate.”

But Martin Hunt, managing director of PR and branding agency Tartan Silk, said he thought Nairn’s was taking the wrong approach. “I’m sure it will open up the US market to them,” he said. “However, I am a traditionalist and I feel that I would prefer, culturally, to maintain the status quo. Would we want to rename haggis or cranachan or other Scottish food to appeal to a different palate?

“Surely one should educate consumers about the traditions and the culture of what an oatcake is. Nairn’s Oatcakes is a fabulous brand and a great product.”

Freedman said the change was more likely to be required in the American market, rather than in Canada or New Zealand, where there is more nostalgia for Britain, because of the US belief in the “melting pot” – where family history and cultural roots are cherished but American history is prized overall.

“In Australia and Canada there is a much closer affinity with Scottish culture. Although there are a lot of people in the US who have Scottish roots, there is an Americanised Scottishness,” said Freedman, who has lived in the US. “Although people are proud of their roots, American culture has evolved and is very much entrenched.”

Nairn’s, which also makes a range of savoury, baked oat crisps as well as muesli and porridge, hopes to cash in on the health craze for oats currently sweeping across both the UK and America.

Oats are increasingly considered to be a healthier alternative to wheat, which contains gluten. Coeliacs, who cannot digest gluten but who can often eat oats, are on the rise, while the number of people who are intolerant or allergic to wheat is also rising.

Last year the company invested £750,000 to build a new factory specifically to produce gluten-free oatcakes and cereals. Laing said this market was worth about £100 million in the UK and much more in the US.