Launch Date: 1895
Country of Origin: UK
Ownership History: Frederick Gibson 1895 – 1903, Midlands Vinegar Company 1903 – 2005, J. Heinz 2005 – Present
Brand Overview: HP Sauce is the best known brand of savoury brown sauce in Britain.
HP Sauce is a condiment; a popular brown sauce with a malt vinegar base, blended with fruit and spices. It is usually eaten with savoury food, or used as an ingredient in soups or stews. The original recipe for HP Sauce was developed by Frederick Gibson Garton, a grocer from Nottingham. He registered the name H.P. Sauce in 1895 after hearing that a restaurant in the Houses of Parliament had begun serving it, and for many years the bottle labels have carried a picture of the Houses of Parliament.
In 1903 Garton sold the recipe and HP brand for the sum of £150 and the settlement of some unpaid bills to Edwin Sampson Moore, the founder of the Midlands Vinegar Company (the forerunner of HP foods).
Moore launched his first UK marketing campaign later the same year, including the sale of miniature bottles of HP Sauce by door-to-door salesmen. The taste of spicy chutneys, once for the wealthy and well-travelled due to their expensive ingredients, suddenly became accessible to the masses. A cheaper version of brown sauce, called Daddies Favourite, was launched in 1904.
During WWI and other times of shortage, HP sauce was often seen as a way of making leftovers and inferior cuts of meat more palatable. The brand was exported all over the British Empire as well as France and Scandinavia.
HP Sauce became known as “Wilson’s Gravy” in the 1960s and 1970s – named after Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. This association arose following an interview given to the Sunday Times by his wife, Mary Wilson, in which she claimed “If Harold has a fault, it is that he will drown everything with HP Sauce”. This additional emphasis on political connection has continued indefinitely, with 2012 issues of satirical current affairs publication Private Eye carrying the title ‘HP Sauce’ for the magazine’s Parliamentary news section.
As HP’s popularity grew, so did its line of products; from the launch of HP Fruity in 1969 to HP Steak Sauce in 2008. Also in the summer of 2008, a version with lower salt and sugar content than the original HP Sauce was released in line with increasing health concerns surrounding the consumption of these ingredients.
By 2005, HP was the biggest brown sauce retailer in Britain with 73.8% of the UK market. In this year, the American food processing company Heinz bought the parent company HP Foods and was approved in April 2006 for the £440 million purchase. In May 2006, Heinz controversially announced plans to switch production of HP Sauce from the UK to its European facility in the Netherlands. Ironically, this decision occurred only weeks after HP launched a campaign to “Save the Proper British Cafe”. The announcement prompted a call to boycott Heinz products, with businesses near to the Aston factory launching a Save Our Sauce campaign. Protests were held in Birmingham and outside the American Embassy in London in a bid to get the company to change its plans.
In 2007, Beattie McGuinness Bungay (BMB) teamed up with West End musical Monty Python’s Spamalot to produce a limited edition HP Sauce bottle as part of the brand’s largest ever marketing push. The £4m drive included a £1.6m TV ad campaign, showcasing the new strapline “The sauce of weekend pleasure”. It was designed to give HP Sauce a more contemporary positioning and broaden its appeal. Only 1,075 bottles of the limited Spamalot edition were produced.
In 2010 Heinz switched its plastic HP bottles to PET as part of the first packaging change to the range in nine years. The new packaging retained its association with the Houses of Parliament, but the images became bolder and sharper, creating a more impactful and modern design to resonate with younger children. Since 2011, HP sauce has been manufactured with a new reduced sodium recipe and features a green label on the bottle. This was a direct result of Government policy with regard to salt levels in food. Also, in 2011, Heinz announced that it would launch a limited edition HP bottle to support the annual Movember campaign for raising awareness of men’s health.
In 2012, HP Sauce launched their first TV campaign in five years to define “modern manliness” with the title of the “Sauce of Manliness”. The ad hoped to target male consumers who do not traditionally use the brand by focusing on how being a modern man includes a love of sports, completing DIY tasks, and HP Sauce. In 2013, the campaign was extended to include new labelling on the bottles that featured “man rules” written on them. For instance, “makes a sandwich a manwich” was written across the logo of the Houses of Parliament. The “Sauce of Manliness” campaign continued into 2014 with a radio campaign. The participating radio stations included Heart FM, Capital and Absolute Radio starting from April 7th for 16 weeks. The advertising focused on how HP Sauce can transform meals by adding that extra “bang” to bangers and mash or making a pie, a cham-pie-on.
The Movember campaign continued in 2014 with a social media campaign. HP Sauce UK launched a Facebook campaign to support Movember through four weekly challenges. It encouraged men to show off their moustaches on social media and the multiple winners will have donations sent to the Movember fund in their name. The best photo would then be selected to become the face of the HP Sauce’s Movember campaign for the following year’s bottles.
In 2014, famous artist David Mach asked the public to assist him in collecting 2,000 bottles of HP bottles for a sculpture he was creating on British identity to be exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery. Although he was not sponsored by the brand to create this piece, he specifically chose HP Sauce because he considers it a potent symbol of Britishness. This again demonstrates how HP Sauce as a brand is intertwined with British culture and identity due in large part to its branding history.
Heinz decided to launch a campaign to promote both Ketchup and HP Sauce in 2015. This campaign was known as Red vs Brown and encouraged consumers to vote online for their preferred condiment. It focused on Facebook, Twitter, and mainstream radio stations as forms of communication and featured a live online map of the different regions of the UK. The campaign also focused on having stations at supermarkets and front of store displays for promotion.
The label received a minor alteration starting in June of 2019 due to the current view of the Houses of Parliament along the Thames. Elizabeth Tower, which houses Big Ben is currently surrounded by scaffolding, so the label now reflects this. The scaffolding stands out in red and even includes two small figures helping with the construction. The labels will continue to be produced until the restoration of the tower is complete.
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