The surprising history of Arnott’s Shapes starts with an adventurous German baker, and a forgotten biscuit company that was once one of Australia’s best known brands.
Adolf Brockhoff was born in Mecklenburg, in northern Germany, in 1841.
His father was a tanner and his background was modest. From a young age, Brockhoff showed a restless spirit; when he was a teenager he decamped to America, hoping to make his fortune.
His timing was not opportune.
The American Civil War erupted in 1861, shortly after his arrival, plunging much of the country into chaos. Short of money Brockhoff joined the Union Army, and saw action in 1862.
Afterwards, he returned to Germany, but his wanderlust was not sated.
In 1863, Brockhoff decided to try his luck in Australia.
Passenger ships in this period often made their way along the south coast, stopping at the larger towns en route to Melbourne and Sydney. In December, Brockhoff’s ship put in at Port Fairy, and he decided to disembark, taken with the picturesque small town.
With his savings he opened a general store.
In 1867 he married Jessie Douglas, and the pair started a family. Shortly afterwards they relocated to Melbourne.
Brockhoff’s store had been successful, and he was ready to invest in a larger business.
Melbourne was booming in this period, off the back of the gold rush, and there was an enormous demand for manufactured goods.
Brockhoff moved into food production, initially with a series of business partners. In 1882 he founded his own company, Brockhoff Biscuits.
Based in North Melbourne, Brockhoff had his own flour mill and factory, producing biscuits, crackers, and other snack items. The company was quickly a success, and Brockhoff became a wealthy man.
Brockhoff retired in 1890, and control of the company passed to his eldest son, Frederick. Frederick would continue to expand, opening factories in NSW and WA.
In the early 20th century, the company would introduce a series of products that became iconic in Australia; Savoy and Salada Crackers, and Chocolate Ripple Biscuits.
Brockhoff Biscuits became a nationally recognised brand, one of Australia’s first.
Frederick retired in 1930 and handed control to his own sons, Alan, Harold and Jack. These three would lead the company in a new direction, after World War II.
The war forced a change in Australia’s global orientation, bringing it closer to America. The large number of American soldiers stationed here also left a cultural legacy, providing greater exposure to American popular culture, and consumer goods.
After the war, American companies began to focus more on Australia, as a new market for their products. Among this influx of items: snacks.
While crackers, chips and biscuits were already popular in Australia, new American brands began to infiltrate the local market, offering exotic new items and flashy marketing.
In 1953, Brockhoff Biscuits moved to a new, larger site in Burwood. They would also add a new type of cracker, designed to head off the challenge from the US.
Brockhoff’s ‘Shapes’ launched in 1954 with one flavour: Savoury. They were salty with a mild tang; flavour-wise, not a huge departure from the company’s existing crackers.
But the difference with these snacks was in their marketing.
They came in 3 different shapes – hence the name – a triangle, a hexagon, and a plus sign. Brockhoff combined their design with lively advertising to make them seem playful and modern, a local snack designed to compete with the more glamourous offerings from the US.
Savoury Shapes were successful, and were followed a year later by a second flavour: French Onion (these were rectangular). As the snack’s popularity grew, Brockhoff’s introduced Barbeque and Chicken Crimpy varieties.
But the threat from American brands did not disappear. Nabisco, one of the world’s largest food companies, and maker of popular snacks like Oreos and Ritz crackers, began eying an expansion into Australia.
Concerned that they would not be able to compete against such a well resourced business, Brockhoff’s began considering a merger with its largest competitor: Arnott’s.
Arnott’s was Australia’s other well known biscuit brand.
The company’s start had been similar to Brockhoff’s; William Arnott, a Scottish immigrant, had opened his first biscuit store in NSW in 1847 (you can read more about the founding of Arnott’s, here).
They had grown gradually in size, expanded interstate, and now owned a large market share and a number of iconic products. The executives at Arnott’s also recognised the threat from Nabisco.
In 1964, Brockhoff’s, Arnott’s, and some smaller snack companies, merged, forming a new conglomerate known as ‘The Australian Biscuit Co.’
The brands in the new company maintained their own labels for another decade. Brockhoff’s released more flavours of Shapes in this period, including ‘Zesty’ (Tomato) and ‘French Accent’ (French Onion by an unusual alias).
In 1973 it was decided that Arnott’s, the best known of the brands by this time, would subsume the others. Brockhoff Biscuits was no more.
Jack Brockhoff, Adolf’s grandson, remained as head of Arnott’s Melbourne operations until his death, in 1984.
Shapes remained popular as the decades passed, while different flavours came and went. Some, like ‘Fish and Chips’ and ‘Meat Pie’ did not last, others like ‘Nacho Cheese’ and ‘Pizza’ established themselves as permanent fixtures.
In 2016, Arnott’s decided to change the recipe of some of their most popular flavours. Pandemonium ensued.
The new versions of Barbecue and Pizza were particularly singled out. Outraged consumers took to social media to complain, calling them ‘disgusting’, ‘inedible’, and ‘sinful’.
‘They are like death in a packet. Made me cry for hours. I’ll never recover from the emotional turmoil this product has put me through.’
– Shapes fan Ebony Beckwith, quoted in the ‘Herald Sun’, 2016
Celebrities were asked which version they preferred; everyone had an opinion.
Thanking Shapes fans for their ‘enquiries’, Arnott’s defended themselves by saying they had received a lot of feedback asking for the flavours to be updated.
As the tabloid media gleefully reported people stockpiling old Shapes before they disappeared (the Hun also found someone who had bought 500 boxes of original flavour Pizza), the company finally gave in: the original flavours would be restored, alongside the revised versions.
Within two years, the new versions were gone completely. But the shock of the great Shape flavour change has not receded entirely: seven years later, the impacted flavours still carry a banner that reads ‘ORIGINALS’.