Since I tried the varieties of Tim Tams originating from Arnott’s collaboration with Gelato Messina, I’ve been obsessing over the whole new-flavours-for-old-products thing.
For those who can’t guess, Gelato Messina is an ice-cream company. The business has grown from their first store in Darlinghurst, Sydney—est. 2002—to Las Vegas. And although Messina hasn’t arrived in regional Australia, they do have a Queensland foothold at Coolangatta. Messina’s 2014 hardcover recipe book laid the foundation for national recognition, but the Tim Tams venture provides an opportunity to reach far-flung supermarket shoppers for whom the book is invisible.
But what does Arnott’s—now owned by giant American company Campbell Soup Company—get out of the deal?
Okay, teaming up with Messina generates attention and builds gourmet prestige, as demonstrated in 2014, when Arnott’s collaborated with Sydney macaron king/celebrity chef Adriano Zumbo (flavours: Red Velvet; Coconut Crème; Choc Raspberry, Salted Caramel).
The Messina aura is based on creativity, unique and sometimes wacky flavours, and an “artisan” reputation. (Messina’s 2016 YouTube video shows glimpses of their new factory but focuses on hand-made ice-cream constructions and even shows the gastronomic experiment of a seven-course degustation dinner.)
The company also highlights the integrity of their ingredients. “At Messina, we make everything for our gelato from scratch”, says the website. (Also see their blog post.) “If there’s mint in a flavour, we cold press it here, if there are pistachios we find the best ones we can and use the real nuts.”
Now, the purpose of any new Tim Tam flavour is to renew customer interest. For many years after its debut in 1964, the original version inhabited supermarket shelves in all its solo glory. During the early 2000s, however, new versions appeared.
At first the changes were relatively tame: dark chocolate or white chocolate instead of the original (which is actually a blend of three different chocolates, “specially developed by Arnott’s to give a slightly caramel flavour”).
Then the flavours became more adventurous: dark rum and raisin; honeycomb; orange; dark chocolate and mint; caramel; Tia Maria; Kahlua; peanut butter; toffee apple.
Sometimes bogus “limited editions” are available at only one supermarket chain. These flavours have included coffee, mango, banana, and pineapple. Then there was the cocktail series: Champagne and Strawberry; Pina Colada, and Espresso Martini.
Each new flavour presents a marketing opportunity, and when flavours have a famous name attached, the marketing opportunities can be inflated into elaborate happenings.
But the glitz and glamour of the “prestigious”, “gourmet”, “limited edition” Tim Tams hints at desperation.
In 2013, Fairfax journalist Eli Greenblat commented that Tim Tams faced “profit pressure and intense rivalry from other sweet biscuits.” And in an article about these new flavours, New Corp’s Tristan Lutze writes: “The prevailing issue for Arnott’s is that, while Tim Tams remains one of Australia’s most recognizable and beloved food brands, this esteem alone does not translate into sales.” “Profit pressure” seems surprising, since a mind-blowing 45 million packs of Tim Tams were sold in Australia in 2014, but I guess global companies like Campbells have a different perspective.
Hence the new flavours. But are they good enough to ward off competitors? I conducted informal research with a small group of high-school girls.
There was no agreement among them about which flavour was best; each of the four versions was rated highly by at least one of the girls. In the same way, they disagreed about which one was, as they said, “really disgusting”.
However, they all agreed that none was as good as original Tim Tams. (BuzzFeed has a YouTube video assessing Tim Tams and the favourite is the Double Coat—just like the original, but more so.)
These results aligns with Lutze’s opinion that the new flavours are not necessarily introduced for their own sake, but rather as reminders to customers of “the beloved original … and drives them to buy a pack”.
Okay. That makes a lot of sense. But there’s something else keeps niggling at me. How, exactly, are these these new Tim Tam flavours achieved?
The Messina Tim Tams began their slow development in 2015, with the Messina folks facing technical issues such as matching the new flavours to the flavours of Tim Tams’ signature chocolate coatings. Messina co-director Declan Lee admits that moving from ice cream to biscuits created challenges:
We have to make sure that even though they’re not going to have any ice cream in them, that they represent what we are as a company. That’s really important.
Founder Nick Palumbo adds:
And the science is going to come into play. To reproduce the flavours, they’re going to have to concentrate them down.
Can Messina’s artisanal house-made natural flavours actually transfer to this new context? Or will “science” have to step in with artificial flavourings?
The tiny print in the mandatory Ingredient section of Tim Tam packaging does not clarify the type of flavourings, and nor does the Arnott’s website, which simply states that Tim Tams contain natural and artificial flavourings. (And some versions, such as the banana-flavoured “limited edition”, taste 100 per cent artificial to me!)
One YouTube clip about the Messina Tim Tams shows the Arnott’s flavour expert leading the Messina creative staff through “flavour mapping”. It does not reveal that this part of the process is where artificial flavours are matched to the natural flavours in Messina’s ice cream samples. Over several pages, Joanna Blythman’s book Swallow This reveals how extensive—and specific—artificial flavourings are:
… comprehensive list of fruit flavourings, … passion fruit and pitahaya … peach and pomengranate … you don’t just get raspberry flavouring, you also get black raspberry flavouring … The foraging section includes sea buckthorn, truffle and rosehip flavourings. In the carvery, there are “hamburger spice”, fried chicken, smoked salmon, Serrano ham, Polish ham, bacon, roasted pork, boiled pork, beef, barbecue … Parma ham, sourdough bread … Honey represents another family tree …: clover, acacia, lavender, pine, chestnut, thyme. (140-141)
And Tim Tams are, after all, are an undeniably industrial product (watch the fascinating automated production line). Kate Midena wrote in 2013 that “the original biscuits are produced at around 3,000 biscuits per minute, which equates to approximately 60 biscuits per second.” The coating “is produced at a rate of 20 tonnes per 24 hours.”
By contrast, Messina made 2,000 litres of ice cream a week during 2012—impressive, but not the same order of magnitude of Tim Tams industrial production.
Blythman explains why flavourings—artificial and “natural”—are important to industrially produced foods:
The hard fact of the matter is that the extreme temperatures and stress involved in industrial food manufacture do grievous bodily harm to natural ingredients, irrevocably damaging their intrinsic textures, flavours and aromas … They need help, and so added flavourings step in to boost them … [added flavourings] also do the vital job of actively suppressing undesirable flavours and smells created by the manufacturing process … (p 136)
… they are cheap, and so make it possible for manufacturers to use less of something more expensive. (pp 137-138)
So, after all this obsessing (and it really does feel good to unburden myself!), I’ve come to two conclusions.
- In my opinion, Tim Tams and Messina are a bad pairing, because the companies’ professed values clash. Arnott’s speed, volume of production, and scale of profit is miles away from Gelato Messina’s deliberately small-scale, artisanal reputation. Messina may be increasing its brand recognition, but its carefully constructed “quality”, “meticulous”, “personal” ethos could be tarnished by association with Arnott’s fast, efficient, massive-scale industrial production.
- Finally, the fuss over Tim Tam flavours misdirects our attention—not because they depend on artificial additives, and not because they misrepresent Gelato Messina. The point is that the element that makes a Tim Tam is texture: the crisp biscuit layers, the creaminess of the centre, the chocolate coating melting on your fingers and in your mouth. And the man who invented Tim Tams, Ian Norris, kept the recipe top secret so that no one could replicate the experience.
By the way, did you know a cheese-flavoured version of Tim Tams captured Indonesian palates?
Joanna Blythman, 2015, Swallow This: Serving up the Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets, London: Fourth Estate.