Julia Catton: 30 years of pigging out on Percy

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Brits love Brits. David Attenborough, Colin Firth, Mary Berry, the list goes on. This month we celebrate two of the most iconic Brits and their special milestones: 70 years of Queen Elizabeth II and 30 years of Percy Pig.

Percy Pig is the most valuable pig on the planet with an estimated net worth of £50 million. The British supermarket chain Marks and Spencer is now selling 400 million Percy-themed sweets annually – equivalent to ten a second. In celebration of his 30th birthday, I spoke with Julia Catton, the M&S product developer who created him.

Julia explains that they had already been working with the German factory who ultimately made Percy Pig for some time, “We knew that the products from this supplier were delicious and we knew we needed to find something that would work in the UK marketplace.”

Like all great commercial success stories, Percy filled a gap. 30 years ago, jelly sweets were very traditional and there was much less choice. M&S set out to create something fun. “It was Wine Gums, Fruit Pastilles, all the things that people knew and loved but they weren’t that open to different types of flavours and textures. Haribo didn’t exist in the UK at that point and the British palette for sweets was quite conservative”, explains Julia. 

I drew a picture of this pig with the ears and everything else, and that was that

The German supplier had a dual depositing technology, unusual at the time, meaning you could make sweets with two different textures. In a room full of sweet samples was a panda shape with liquorice ears and a foamy milk face. It was this Panda that inspired Percy. Knowing how divisive liquorice is, Julia took the two-textured idea and modified the flavour to make it more UK friendly. “I drew a picture of this pig with the ears and everything else, and that was that.”

It’s clear that Percy was no accident. Having identified a gap on the confectionery shelves and conceptualised the product, the development team were meticulous. “He nearly didn’t get launched at one point”,  reveals Julia, “We had this massive debate with the supplier about whether the faces were good enough. In the end we decided to just go for it”.

But was he an instant hit? “It sold immediately.” “With any new product it takes a while to build a following and with an all year-round product what you want is for people to come back and buy it a second time. Which they did.” Percy is not age-related, the target audience is very much the whole family. A lot of people buying Percy Pigs now are people who were brought up on them as children and are now buying them for their own families.

It didn’t take M&S long to realise they were onto a winner. In 2002, Percy was joined by his ‘Farmyard Friends’, Candice Cow and Sharon Sheep.  In 2013, he settled down and married Penny who is not a Cumberland or Gloucester Old Spot but bright yellow and lemon-flavoured. A flurry of piglets followed. Next came Globetrotting Percy and his new friends: Poppy Panda and Timmy Tiger.  Why a pig thought it was a good idea to befriend a tiger, I do not know. In 2018 Percy became an adult son. And, in a feat of ex post facto irony, during the 2020 spring lockdown, ‘Party Percy’ was released. No Sue Grey report as of yet. 

Standard Percy still way out-sells everything else

Adding this narrative framework to Percy’s life has been a critical component of his success. Not only has it created more product development opportunities, it has also turned Percy into a complete character at the centre of his own brand. Are all these Percy spin-offs as popular as the classical Percy Pig? “Standard Percy still way out-sells everything else… but if the others didn’t sell they wouldn’t keep making them because the production lines are quite long”, explains Julia.

If you’re not convinced that Brits are crazy for Percy, you need only examine the uncurbed number of Percy imitations that have come and gone over the years. Asda tried ‘Stanley Snail’ and ‘Fredrick Frog’. Lidl had a suspiciously Corgi resembling ‘Henry the Hippo’. Waitrose and Tesco, eschewing names altogether, tried ‘Woodland Friends’ and ‘Cool cats’. Though most amusing was Sainsbury’s who copied with pink ‘Eric the Elephant’ and later his children, who not only had a phallic quality to them but were called ‘Eric’s Little Squirts’. None have had a fraction of Percy’s success.

So why did Percy take off in a way no other sweet has managed to for over thirty years? M&S are selling from a much clearer shelf, with no other brands in sight. “If you’re trying to sell it in Sainsbury’s with Haribo, Candy Kittens and other brands around, the landscape is much more competitive”, says Julia. Timing was also key. When Percy was launched there weren’t nearly as many brands in the UK domain, so he got a following before there was an alternative. “People have a repertoire of sweets that they love and it’s very hard to get into that repertoire”. Supermarket rivals are going to have to go big if they want to outsell Percy. I’m thinking Fergus the Fruitbat, Santiago the Shark or Tallulah the Pterodactyl…

Percy is much more than a foamy sweet, he’s a cultural icon. In 2008, he ranked number 11 on British Vogue’s ‘40 Hottest People and Trends to Watch’ list

But Percy is much more than a foamy sweet, he’s a cultural icon. In 2008, he ranked number 11 on British Vogue’s ‘40 Hottest People and Trends to Watch’ list. He’s enjoyed a slew of celebrity endorsements over the years from Amanda Holden to Tom Daley and Andy Murray. In 2021, he spoke for the first time, voiced by Tom Holland in the M&S Christmas advert. Most recently, he’s taken TikTok by storm.

 Nobody works harder than the Percy PR machine because M&S know what they have in him. Along with Colin the Caterpillar, Percy is a critical cog in their brand. In an increasingly crowded and competitive supermarket scene, Percy gives M&S the edge. It’s no wonder they’ve gone whole hog and tried to capitalise on him in any shape or form. I’ve seen Percy the Pig bed linen, table lamps, door mats, men’s pyjamas, cress seeds, and even a frying pan. 

It’s fair to say that Percy is doing really well. Especially considering that most British pigs are destined for the slaughterhouse after just 6 months. Generating profits to the tune of £20 million in 2021, Percy is clearly continuing to bring home the bacon for M&S. “I think he’s got a great future. People will never tire of him”, says Julia confidently. So what’s next? It’s hard to say. Perhaps a make-up line, a Netflix deal or a not-for-profit organisation. It’s all possible for Percy.

Image credits: Crystal Collis via Unsplash

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