Business Maverick


Don’t panic South Africa – your mayo’s in safe hands

Don’t panic South Africa – your mayo’s in safe hands
NOMU's MAYU wasn't a real product until the orders started flowing in.

When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Or, if you’re NOMU, seize the moment and mix mayonnaise.

For most people, the demise of an international brand of mayonnaise would barely constitute a blip on the radar. But for some unfathomable reason, the disappearance of Hellman’s mayonnaise from supermarket shelves seems to have turned into yet another gut-stabbing reminder that South Africans can’t have nice things. Unless you’re a solar sparky, a Gucci dandy, or a Lotto leach.

First, Kraft came for our Miracle Whip, then Simba robbed us of our tomato sauce crisps, Cadbury’s pulled Chocolate Log, and off went both our fish pastes. Then, the final match in the powder keg: Unilever deprived us of the very best mass-produced salad dressing on the market, when it discontinued Hellman’s mayonnaise, citing low demand and inflationary import costs.

Days after Unilever announced it would be halting sales of Hellman’s, local premium food innovator NOMU posted a cheeky social media announcement, stating “Don’t worry, South Africa – we’ve got this…”, with a mock-up picture of their “MAYU”, followed by a disclaimer in smaller font, “Just kidding. We’ll miss you, Hellman’s”.

The joke backfired, when the following day a customer, who hadn’t read the fine print, scratched out an order for three cases of the non-existent MAYU on NOMU’s website. Then came the calls from distributors as far afield as Botswana, requesting stock. Beset with queries, the marketing mind behind NOMU, Paul Raphaely, suggested to his wife and business partner, Tracy Foulkes, that he might have stumbled on to something that the public had responded to with enormous enthusiasm.

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A few days later, during a pre-scheduled meeting with product development friends, they realised they could do this. They could launch a mayo just as good – if not better – despite their having no experience in the sauce business. After all, NOMU is known for hot chocolate, spices, baking kits, stock, and its Sweetly sugar substitute, which are mostly dry, shelf-stable products.

In the current business-unfriendly climate, expanding operations in South Africa would probably be foolhardy for a company like NOMU, which is on the cusp of producing its number one seller, the Skinny Hot Chocolate, in Austria. It’s the reason agile brands need to seek out collaborative opportunities.

Within weeks, the company went from “tactical to practical” and released its own “crowdsauced” MAYU during a soft launch this week to test the market and appetite for the product. Only 1,000 bottles of MAYU were prepared in the initial phase, sold via NOMU, Yuppiechef and a few SPAR stores across the country, and rapidly scooped up.

Raphaely told Business Maverick that he and his wife had been quite happy buying Hellman’s until it was taken off the shelf, which is when an opportunity presented itself. Essentially, they ran with what was supposed to be a practical joke: “We literally said ‘Just kidding’ [after telling SA they ‘have it’], but no one saw it,” he said.

While they wanted to replace a product that they also enjoyed, they were using a commercial FMCG-style product as a model. This was unusual for the company as they had always done homestyle-type recipe development for shelf-stable products that did not require refrigeration. 

From the beginning, the product development philosophy behind Mayu was going to be different and in stark relief to everything NOMU had done before, so it required some elements that were shelf-stable while still incorporating healthier options and quality ingredients.

“For example, we’re using authentic paprika, not paprika flavouring; and NOMU quality, which also problematically means that we probably won’t be able to hold the same price point. It’s going to come at a premium because we’re not Heinz, or Unilever, and we’re not able to achieve their economies of scale, but we can try and maybe match them on quality.”

The real test is in the product that they put out, after just four weeks of development.

“If South Africa likes the flavour and the quality, then from here really the fun part is how we gradually improve and build on the product. That’s the part we’re really looking forward to. It’s also quite fun. We’re open to suggestions.”

Sold out

In the past week, MAYU sold out. Only two customers in a thousand complained that it didn’t taste “exactly” like Hellman’s. Which isn’t necessarily a criticism.

“It’s exciting – like waiting to see if your 1,000 children make a good impression on their host families. But we’re waiting to hear from the public, and if it’s cool, we’ll do a few more 1,000 limited releases and see where it goes.”

Yuppiechef took the full allocation that NOMU set aside for it. Twenty-two SPARs in Durban, Gauteng and Cape Town received stock, which has also sold out. The Sea Point SPAR requested 120 cases, which NOMU was unable to supply during the initial launch, although this branch will be a priority for the next roll-out.

“This is for a product that hasn’t even been tested. It doesn’t happen in other countries, at this speed. It speaks to the wonderful craziness of a market where stuff can happen like this so quickly.”

With a flood of orders, NOMU is likely to feed another 3,000 into the market and see where that goes.

The company doesn’t want to move too fast.

“If those 3,000 work, then we’ll produce another 5,000. And then if we get a couple of nice big retailers coming on board, several more thousand. That’s kind of how it’s going. Long may it last. We’ll just see.” BM/DM


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