Mars UK caused uproar on 14th May 2007 when it announced that it had started to use an animal product to make its chocolate – meaning the products were no longer suitable for vegetarians.

Since the beginning of the month, the manufacturer had used rennet – a chemical enzyme extracted from calves’ stomachs – to create whey. Snickers, Twix, Malteasers, Bounty, Minstrels, Milky Way and, of course, the Mars bar (as well as the ice cream versions) had had their recipes changed.

Paul Goalby, corporate affairs manager for Masterfoods, said: “If the customer is an extremely strict vegetarian, then we are sorry the products are no longer suitable, but a less strict vegetarian should enjoy our chocolate.”

When pressed further by the Vegetarian Society, Masterfoods said the change was due to it switching the sourcing of its ingredients – an answer the Society found “incomprehensible”.

It’s estimated that there are three million vegetarians in the UK. To make the change for what seemed like no good reason – and announce it two weeks after it had happened – left them bewildered and alienated.

“At a time when more and more consumers are concerned about the provenance of their food, Masterfoods’ decision to use non-vegetarian whey is a backward step,” said the Vegetarian Society in a statement.

“Mars products are very popular with young people and many will be shocked to discover that their manufacture now relies on the extraction of rennet from the stomach lining of young calves,” it added.

The Society asked its members to voice their concerns – and in just one week more than 6,000 people bombarded Mars UK with phone and email complaints.

It even got political – with forty MPs signing a petition to voice their opposition.

Under mounting pressure, Mars reversed the decision.

“The consumer is our boss and we had lots of feedback from consumers who were unhappy about the change,” said Fiona Dawson, managing director of Mars UK, who added that it became “very clear, very quickly” that it had made a mistake.

What does good look like?

Making a change to a product can be a risky business. Try to identify if there are any segments of your market/customer base that will be affected – and if possible, consult with them ahead of time, and make sure your customers are aware.

Dr Annette Pinner, chief executive of the Vegetarian Society, said after Mars’ reversal: “A Masterfoods representative has made contact with us and we are very pleased that they now recognise the importance of integrity to all their customers, especially vegetarians,” she added.

This communication element is so important, and would have prevented the costly change back to their original methods, negative PR, apology letter advertorials and the influx of complaints.

The other interesting perspective on this story is whether Mars had made assumptions that only ‘strict’ vegetarians would be affected. And whether the delay in telling people showed a lack of respect for people’s dietary choices. In an increasingly ‘personalised’ world with more and more subcultures, this is more than a faux pas – because no matter which group you belong to, everyone desires respect.

Moving forward

Know that changes to your products or how they are made is significant to your customers. If it means a proportion of society can no longer use/access your product, it will makes waves. It might not make the headlines in the same way that these household names did, but you’ll soon notice when your revenue falls.

It’s important to understand how quickly society is moving. While 2007 might have only been on the cusp of the trend for vegetarianism and veganism, the Vegetarian Society were right when they said “more consumers are concerned about the provenance of their food” – and Mars should probably have known that. Marketers will never predict every trend, but it’s important to stay close to and understand your target market.

Have you been involved in reformulating a product? Do you know of any other examples – successful or otherwise – of changing a product recipe? What will you change to your marketing practices in the future?