Michel et Augustin shares its plans to enter the US market

Michel et Augustin shares its plans to enter the US market

Quirky French food group Michel et Augustin is enjoying rapid growth at home and overseas with a portfolio ranging from biscuits to beverages. Backing from Artemis, the French investment fund with assets including the Chateau Latour vineyard, is enabling the company to expand further - and it is set to enter the US. Dean Best met Antoine Chauvel, the firm's export director, at the SIAL trade show in Paris to find out more about its plans.

Formed in 2005 by Michel de Rovira and Augustin Paluel-Malmont, Michel et Augustin's range of cookies, yoghurts and desserts has gained a foothold in France and in a clutch of overseas markets with offbeat marketing supporting the brand's premium positioning.

The company has enjoyed rapid growth, with sales this year expected to be EUR31m (US$40m), up from EUR19m in 2013. In France, Michel et Augustin products are on sale in the ten largest cities in the country and this summer the growth of the brand's national profile was underlined when it launched its first TV advertising campaign.

Outside France, the company sells its products in over 20 markets but, export director Antoine Chauvel says, it counts four as "strategic" - the French-speaking Belgium and Switzerland, plus Japan and China, where it secured its first listing last year.

Michel et Augustin wants to add the US to its list of strategic markets. After two years of working out how and where to launch into the US, the company is entering the market later this year in New York, with an eye on having the first of eight SKUs on shelf in January.

Speaking to just-food at the SIAL trade show in Paris, Chauvel underlines the importance Michel et Augustin is placing on its US foray. "We export our French production to more than 20 countries in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. We now we have to prove the real international potential of the brand in one given market. We will go into the US, with a local team and export the same products as in France but for the first time with English packaging."

Among the eight SKUs Michel et Augustin is looking to sell in France including its Petits Carrés and Petit Baguettes biscuits. Chauvel acknowledges the competition the company will face in the US but insists it can offer the US consumer something different and says there has been initial interest from retail buyers.

"It is a challenge: we are trying to sell cookies to the homeland of cookies. We have cookies that are [an] innovative and new to this market," he says. "We have already had contact with chains such as Whole Foods, Fairway, The Fresh Market, also hotels and coffee shop chains. I don't know exactly the outlet but in January we will have cookies in the US."

Chauvel says Michel et Augustin is also looking to lean on the "off-the-wall" marketing technique it has used in France in the US. Without the marketing resources of some of the larger brands in their categories, the company's campaigns in France have included dressing as cows and Augustin Pauluel-Malmont skiing down the Montmartre hill in the north of Paris. Michel et Augustin, Chauvel says, wants to "bring the smile back to grocery shopping".

Chauvel, who will lead Michel et Augustin's push into the US, regularly mentions the word "fun". He points to the different packaging the company uses for the same SKU, a method he says helps the business interact with consumers at a time when it lacked the budget for mass-media campaigns. "We are the only one in the food industry to, when we print packaging for an SKU, we print it in four or six different versions," he says. "It's our first media. Of course we use social media and we start to do TV campaigns in France but our first media is our products. We sell 30m products a year so that's 30m contacts [with consumers].

However, Michel et Augustin is stepping up its investment not just in overseas expansion but also in marketing thanks to a recent change of control at the company. Last summer, French investment fund Artemis, which counts Christie's auction house and the Chateau Latour vineyard among its assets, increased its stake in Michel et Augustin from 25% to 70%. De Rovira and Paluel-Malmont hold the other 30% of the business.

Artemis first invested in Michel et Augustin in 2008 but the fund's fresh investment has enabled the company to move forward with its ambition to break into the US and set up a local team within the market and launch the TV push in France.

The firm will embark on another round of TV and cinema advertising in France this autumn to look to build on what Chauvel calls on the "huge potential" for the business in its domestic market.

However, Michel et Augustin is likely to add a raft of markets to its international roster, preferring in the short term to focus on entering the US.

Nevertheless, the company, which does not make its products, using third-party manufacturers, could look to start up its own production, Chauvel indicates. "We are thinking of having our own plant on a specific product – the chocolate mousse," he says. "This is one of the best-selling products in the range now. We are approaching the critical point of doing this investment of having our own production. The first move to be a real manufacturer could be on the chocolate mousse. It could be next year."

Over almost a decade, Michel et Augustin, with some quirky marketing and a focus on carving out premium niches and large categories, has succeeded in gaining - and retaining a foothold - in France and in select overseas markets. As is to be expected, there have been some mis-steps along the way - a move into smoothies was tried and discarded - but the company has enjoyed rapid growth and, with the backing of Artemis, is hoping to make further strides at home and abroad.