A Sticky End

In case you hadn’t noticed, the makers of McCowans Highland Toffee went into administration last week. However, there may still be hope for the 90-year-old brand and its 200 employees. The administrators Grant Thornton have revealed that there are two potential bidders to keep the business going, one of which is a consortium of Scottish dentists.

That last bit is untrue, in case you’re wondering. There are indeed two as-yet-unidentified potential buyers for Miller-McCowan. But even dentists might be too squeamish for the kind of painful surgery this business seems to need.

Last year, on a turnover of just £8.5 million, a £2.5 million cavity appeared in the company’s accounts. Despite making 140 million bars a year, the business turned sour for the second time since 2005. As a result, I do worry about the viability of the business, and feel sorry for the staff.

Or do I? I’m not one to hold a grudge, but I’d guess McCowans are responsible for a few of the fillings in my teeth.

When I was a kid, there was a wee shop near my granny’s house, run by an aged spinster called Miss Cadzow. (Keeping warm round my granny’s cooker, I must have overheard the hushed kitchen gossip about how, decades earlier, after some kind of indiscretion, Miss Cadzow had been set up in business by… a man!) Anyway, sweets from the Penny Tray were mostly what Miss Cadzow sold. With a super-sized old penny, you could buy a super-sized sugar mouse – chocolate-covered, with a real string tail. Or you could select Black Jacks, Drumsticks, Gobstoppers, Sherbet Dips, Shoelaces… too many treats to remember. All I can think now is that the Lucky Tatties must have been very unlucky for my little teeth.

By the time I got to school, I had a thruppeny-bit on a Friday as pocket money. You could buy a Mars Bar with that. Picture a delicious tree trunk with a chunky chocolate bark, and you’ll imagine how big it seemed to me then.

Still, over the years, I must have got through a mountain of McCowans Highland Toffee. I liked their Penny Chews, sometimes called Penny Dainties, but they were anything but dainty. They were massive – and massively chewy and sticky.

The Australian humorist Clive James tells a story about arriving in Britain as a young man in the 1960s. His teeth were so bad, he used to fill the cavities with chocolate. Personally, I think Penny Chews would have done a much better job. But James wasn’t alone in this mental approach to dental health. By 1972, in a country where a Fruit Salad is a small, chewy sweet, 44% of all Scots over 16 years old had no teeth at all.

And yet, as another iconic Scottish brand faces a sticky end, the nation still has a few things to chew over.

Classic Scottish treats are cool again. I’m sure we’re not the only Scottish creative business that serves up Caramel Logs and Caramel Wafers with our clients’ teas and coffees. Equally, retro sweet shops such as Lickety Splits off Edinburgh’s Royal Mile or designs from Gillian Kyle’s hip online gift store show there’s a distinct market for what we might call Ironic-Bru.

Of course, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. Heritage brands remain a bit of blind alley – and a marketing conundrum for a country like Scotland.

In my view, there are two more pressing questions to get our teeth into. First, there’s the wealth of Scotland. And second, there’s the health of Scotland. As the tale of McCowans ‘Highland Coo’ might suggest, these are just flip sides of the same cultural coinage.

What’s the connection between the products we create and the products we consume. What kind of brands are created and controlled here in Scotland? What kind of products do we buy? If not from Scotland, where do these products come from that displace ‘Scottish’ brands – and why? And, since you are what you consume, what kind of impact does this have on our physical wellbeing, on our employment, prosperity and self-confidence, on how we see ourselves as a nation and a culture?

It’s often assumed that we enjoy energy dense foods because this is a cold, dark country with a history of sustenance farming and a fear of sex – so we like to get a little ‘sugar’ how we can.

But the truth is a little more refined: sugar became embedded in our culture through Scottish international enterprise and domestic commerce.

The first sugar factory was built in Scotland in 1765. The trade winds from the West Indies hit Scotland’s west coast first, and ships could arrive here two weeks faster than other parts of Europe. So, like the tobacco trade, sugar was big business in Scotland. By the late 1860s, 25% of Britain’s sugar imports came from the Clyde and there were perhaps as many as 14 sugar refineries in Greenock alone. The largest of these, the Glebe Sugar-Refining Company, employed 300 people and paid £350,000 in customs duties alone – about £10 million at today’s prices – which may give some indication of how profitable the business was.

Scotland’s sugar merchants were rich and, originally, so were the customers. Sugar was aspirational. But, like bling, as sugar became more readily available, a taste for sweetness seeped into every section of society. From early on, sugar was used as a cheap way to bulk out and preserve food for the poor – 2/3rd sugar to 1/rd fruit in the jam in the jeelly-piece of working men and hungry weans. And, even today, the ‘sugartowns’ where the staple was cheap and plentiful – Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow – still have a sweet tooth  and bad teeth.

So, in one simple example, you can see the connection between enterprise, employment, government revenues, social symbolism, local culture and public health. In recent years, our teeth are getting better. We’ve learned to brush regularly, but we still haven’t sussed how much sugar is jammed into our foods. Scotland’s children might get just 12% of their sugar intake from sweets. But they get about three times more from less obvious sources like soft drinks, biscuits and fromage frais.

But it’s only commercial decay we can really lay at McCowans door. The UK sweet market is worth about £5bn a year and, sadly for Scottish employment, McCowans is a midge in a field full of massive beasts like its former owner Nestlé.

There is a body of evidence on how brands succeed – and how they fail. It suggests that brand value, market out-performance, free cash flow – call it what you like – is created by just two components: Brand Vitality and Brand Stature.

On the one hand, the brand needs the energy to re-invent itself credibly – to be seen as different and remain relevant to changing consumer tastes. Otherwise, in a competitive market, it risks becoming a tired, cheap commodity.

On the other hand, every brand lives on esteem – the functional superiority of the product (however minor) and its symbolic properties need to resonate with the audience. Otherwise, in a world of social symbols, the product becomes unloved and, like Miss Cadzow, gets left on the shelf.

As a symbol of Scotland, I’ll leave you to consider the McCowans Toffee brand and whether it had remained different, relevant, known and esteemed.

But you may be tempted to speculate further. Why are there so few Scottish brands? And why are so few of them controlled from here? In terms of Scottish commerce and consumption, employment and cultural empathy, it’s hard to avoid the impression that we are being ‘farmed’. For our wealth, health and well-being, we need to put Scottish brands – not on a t-shirt or a tea towel – but on the national shopping list.


A version of this article previously appeared in ‘The Scotsman’