Supermarkets should remember the consequences of the Perrier scandal

February 18, 2013

Malcolm WalkerDuring the early part of 1990, health officials in North Carolina, USA, made an alarming discovery. Some Perrier bottled mineral water, whose purity was so legendary they had used it to benchmark other water supplies, was found to be contaminated with minute traces of benzene.

Benzene is a natural component of crude oil. Ingested in sufficient quantities, it can cause cancer in humans. Of course, there was no question of that happening in North Carolina. As a Federal Food and Drug Administration official drily observed at the time: “At these levels there is no immediate hazard. Over many years, if you consumed about 16 fluid ounces a day, your lifetime risk of cancer might increase by one in a million, which we consider a negligible risk.”

But no one was listening to the FDA’s voice of reason. Panic broke out all over the USA – and not just there. Perrier, at that time world leader in the mineral water category, was obliged to withdraw its entire global inventory of 160 million bottles. Brand integrity was further compromised by the discovery that the “natural” bubbles in the bottled potion were actually added back later. Perrier never fully recovered: it lost its leadership and became just another branded mineral water, albeit still a famous French one. Commercially, the crisis was if anything even more disastrous. The independent Perrier bottled water company was, within two years, sold to Nestlé.

I think you know where I’m leading with this. Fast-forward 23 years, to a full-page ad that appeared in yesterday’s national newspapers. It was inserted by Malcolm Walker, founder and chief executive of  leading UK food retailer Iceland. Its purpose was to divert responsibility for the horse meat scandal now engulfing our supermarkets by pointing the finger of blame at cheapskate procurement in local government, the National Health Service – and its equally unscrupulous counterpart in the catering industry – which has connived at bringing down processed food costs to their lowest possible denominator. Doubtless, judging from the ensuing squawks of indignation, the Iceland boss has a point – though how exactly his tirade exonerates the supermarkets from their own ruthless manipulation of supplier lines is not entirely clear. However, Walker does not stop there. Having scored some points on behalf of his sector, he then goes on to trash it by adopting a “holier than thou” approach:

“Iceland does not sell cheap food. We sell high-quality own label frozen food that is good value. We do not sell – and never sold – ‘white pack’ economy products.” Unlike, he carefully does not add, Tesco and Asda. And, just to ram the point home, he goes on to claim that “no horse meat has ever been found in an Iceland product”.

Well, almost none. At the bottom of the ad there is a mealy-mouthed admission that 0.1% of equine DNA was indeed found in two Iceland Quarter Pound burgers. But these don’t count, because the test, carried out by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, was not an “accredited” one, and the discovered traces of horse were “well below the current accepted threshold level” of 1%. So, yaboo sucks to any critics.

Nice one, Malcolm. You’ve managed to spread, or at least smear, the blame far and wide, and thrown into the processor just a hint of xenophobia. Ireland, Romania, France – these horse-eating monkeys, they’re not like us – not to be trusted, whatever their professions of rigorously adhering to EU-wide standards. But, leaving aside the lowly populism of his message, Walker, in waxing eloquent about the infinitesimal amount of contamination in his own burgers, has committed a revealing tactical blunder.

Perrier logoThe current food scandal is not about parts per billion contaminants found in horse meat; it’s about trust in the brand. Just like the benzene found in Perrier all those years ago, consumers would have to ingest an awful lot of horse burger infected with “bute” equine painkiller (over 500 250 gram ones, to be precise) before experiencing any appreciable side effect. But that won’t prevent them passing summary judgement on those august brands – at the head of the supply chain – that have allowed this scandal to happen: namely the UK grocery multiples.

Possibly with devastating consequences for future sales.

One interesting aspect of this scandal is that its ramifications have now moved on from cheap lines of processed meat – in short, “poor people” – to ready-made meals. In the other words, the sort of thing consumed by affluent and articulate members of the middle-class. That’s bad news even for elite purveyors, such as Waitrose and M&S.

In all probability there’s nothing to worry about. But that’s not the point, is it? My local butcher tells me business has gone gang-busters over the past couple of weeks. And for good reason. In the past, there was a perception (false, as it happens, in many cases) that local businesses could not match supermarket fresh meat prices. Now, understandably, people seem a lot more concerned about local provenance. If you must have lasagne, it’s as well to see the meat being minced while you wait, rather than trusting the word of some supermarket about the integrity of its supply line.

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Cameron The Brand Slayer

January 25, 2013

BorgIf it weren’t for the fact David Cameron watches so little television, I would be forced to conclude he has been modelling his recent behaviour on Borg, the Viking Himbo now fronting Tesco’s advertising.

How else explain his assault on multinational brands in recent days – which has all the subtlety of Thor laying about him with his hammer after a particularly drunken binge?

Last week, it was Coca-Cola that got stomped all over, when Cameron told the House of Commons that he regarded it as his solemn paternal duty to prevent his children consuming “excessive” amounts of the sugary beverage.

This week he was at it again, telling the World Economic Forum in Davos that brands which avoided paying their fair share of corporation tax needed “to wake up and smell the coffee” – an unvarnished reference to Starbucks and those other egregious “tax dodgers” Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Google (and, er, Coca-Cola). And the tirade didn’t end there: so sick and tired is the British public of the multinationals’ fiscal chicanery that Cameron has decided to make clamping down on corporate tax-avoidance a central plank of our G8 Group presidency later this year.

Whoa, Dave. Is this your idea of a soft close? Britain shut for business before you oblige us to pull out of the EU?


Horse meat scandal puts grocers through the mincer

January 17, 2013

TescoUntil a couple of days ago, few outside the food retail and logistics business would ever have heard of Silvercrest. Now it has achieved household notoriety as the weak-link in the food chain that has served illegal horse meat up on British tables, in the guise of own-label supermarket beef burgers.

The reputational damage has, rightly, been severe for all those involved. Tesco – which fessed up to at least one line of its apparently legit beef burgers being contaminated with 29% horse meat – has seen £300m wiped from its stock market valuation overnight and has now taken out full-page ads in most national newspapers, grovelling abjectly. The timing could not have been worse, from a corporate point of view. Just days ago, a halfway decent set of financials had seemed to indicate that Tesco was on the ramp of recovery.

Luckily for Tesco, it is no longer alone. A host of other high street names – Aldi, Lidl, Sainsbury, Asda, the Co-Op, Morrisons, Burger King among them – have now opted to clear their shelves of the offensive products. In some cases because they use the same supplier, ABP/Silvercrest, in others merely as a “precaution” lest the same fate might befall their own supply chain. Only McDonald’s and Marks & Spencer have been able to stand aside, smugly waving a clean bill of health.

Their smugness is unwarranted. This disaster could so easily – in only slightly modified circumstances – have happened to them.

Some might argue that the horse-meat scandal is little more than a storm in a tea-cup, got up by the media. After all, no one died and no one is likely to: horse meat is eagerly consumed all over the globe, from Kazakstan to Argentina, as a tasty substitute for the tougher, stringier beef that can be bought for about the same price. Indeed, there’s not a little hypocrisy in this country about the cultural taboo surrounding horse meat. Until about 100 years ago, the Brits themselves were avid consumers of the stuff. Only more recently have we developed the refinement of conscience that prohibits national consumption, while allowing us to send up to 10,000 nags a year to specialist abattoirs, there to be despatched for the perverted pleasure of less civilised foreigners.

Alas, the ramifications of this affair go somewhat deeper. Imagine, for a moment, that instead of horse meat (and elements of pork), those eagle-eyed  inspectors at the Irish Food Standards Agency (FSAI) had found the minutest traces of human DNA. The uncontainable revulsion – far from affecting a few animal lovers, Muslims and Jews – would be universal. An official inquiry would, there and then, be instituted into how these three wise monkeys – the suppliers, the retailers and the regulator – had, through cavalier negligence and the unobstructed pursuit of greed, been allowed to corrupt the integrity of the food chain. Because, make no mistake, this little cock-up is all about money. The burgers most tainted were those from so-called “value” products where the cost of ingredients is at all times under pressure. Retailers want to satisfy their customers with the lowest possible prices consistent with food safety regulations. The suppliers – browbeaten by the retailers – seek low-cost substitutes (in this case from the less  punctilious Netherlands and Spain, where the consumption of horse meat is legal). And the UK regulator takes a passive, compliant attitude to anything that is outside its immediate remit (no conceivable threat to health, so why bother with DNA tests?), suggesting a “lite-touch” relationship that is too cosy with the industry it is supposed to govern.

It makes you wonder why the FSAI could be bothered with such tests, but the UK’s FSA could not. Or indeed, why the retailers didn’t carry out such DNA tests themselves. After all, it’s their brand reputation which is going through the mincer because they have not.


Branston deal a reminder of what a pickle Premier Foods has got itself into

October 31, 2012

Old food brands don’t die, they just get traded away. The latest to fall under the auctioneer’s hammer is Branston – sweet pickle, but also ketchup, mayonnaise and salad cream – which has been knocked down to Japanese relishes specialist Mizkan for £92.5m. It’s the second deal Premier Foods has done with Mizkan. Earlier this year, Premier sold its Haywards pickles business and Sarson’s vinegar brand to the privately-owned Japanese company for £41m.

Not so long ago, Premier was being billed as Britain’s biggest (indigenous) food company. That reputation has long gone, as the company struggles to placate an increasingly disenchanted City with a seemingly endless series of disposals aimed at tackling massive over-leverage (it borrowed far too much in the good years) and a burgeoning pension liability.

The finance boys, not to mention Premier’s new(ish) broom chief executive Michael Clarke (formerly Kraft Food Euro chief), are so chuffed at being ahead of schedule in reducing the debt mountain that they seem to have forgotten what the company is supposed to be about.

These days, the only media ripple Premier manages to make is when it announces yet another fire-sale. Last December it was Brookes Avana, its loss-making chilled food business, sold for £30m. Earlier in 2011, it canning business went to Princes (now part of Mitsubishi) for £182m, and before that, the meat-free business – commonly known as Quorn – for £205m.

In fact, so many brands have disappeared from the portfolio in the past few years that people must wonder what – if anything apart from trying to make money – the Premier umbrella brand stands for these days. Remember Gale’s Honey? Robertson’s Jam? Hartley’s? Chiver’s? Typhoo Tea? All once UK household names – now long since divested.

And more disposals are on the way. Bird’s Custard, for example. And even – if the price is right – the Premier bread business; that’s Hovis to you and me. Which, if I remember rightly, was the jewel in the crown when Premier acquired the old Ranks Hovis McDougall business back in 2007.

The talk in the boardroom is of scaling back to the unassailable fortress of Premier’s so-called “Power Brands”, of which Hovis is currently one (yes, that unassailable). The others are Mr Kipling, Ambrosia, Sharwood’s, Loyd Grossman, Oxo, Bisto, and Batchelors.

To the untutored eye, there’s nothing very “unassailable” about any of these, either. The Loyd Grossman business is unlikely to much outlive the celebrity of its founder. As for Bisto, Batchelors, Mr Kipling and Ambrosia, they are in – or moving towards – the brand museum category: famous items in the pantry a generation ago, but now confined to a dubious ranking on the health traffic light scheme featuring in your local supermarket.

Unilever and the likes of Néstlé, Kraft, Campbell’s and RHM saw the dismal future awaiting such brands long ago, which is why they first cut off marketing support and then disposed of them. Scavenging such brands may have made sense while borrowing costs were no object; and while the supermarkets were prepared to offer them a reasonable amount of shelf space. But they aren’t any more.

For these reasons, a big question mark hangs over Premier, its “Power Brands”, and the continuing viability of its business model.


The ads that defined Tony Scott

August 22, 2012

For the late Sixties Hollywood Britpack – Ridley Scott, Alan Parker, Hugh Hudson, Adrian Lyne, David Puttnam – commercials production was the school where they learned the film-making art.

Tony, Ridley’s younger brother by 7 years, was no exception. Initially, having graduated from the Royal College of Art, he hankered after the austere, attic-lit life of the painter. But materialism – and maybe common sense – got the better of him. In 1967, Ridley Sr lured him into joining his nascent production company RSA (Ridley Scott Associates) with the promise of a Ferrari. It is invidious making a selection from the hundreds of high-grade TV commercials that followed during what the younger Scott later described as a generation of “girls, jeans, rock and roll – a wild period in advertising; … a blast.” But here, all the same, are a few milestones:

First, what we might now refer to as Barclays’s finest hour, with Anthony Hopkins in the starring role of Bob Diamond. A classic, even 12 years later:

Then the Viggen jet fighter ad for Saab, which allegedly put Tony in the frame for making Top Gun, his best-known film:

And finally, finally – his last ad, made for BBDO and Mountain Dew, and featuring Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban :

It’s all in that last line, isn’t it? “But I’m Mark Cuban!” Scott’s sudden death last Sunday remains a mystery. His wife has discounted all rumours that he was suffering from “inoperable brain cancer”.


Brands show their sensitive gay side

July 11, 2012

Pink: it’s the new black. Brands are falling over each other to “out” themselves as fellow travellers in the Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgender community (hereto after, LBGT).

First we had Kraft, with its Gay Pride rainbow cookie, posted on a Facebook page. Then Google joined forces with Citigroup and Ernest & Young to promote a joint campaign that  is to highlight the privations suffered by LBGTs around the world. And now – improbably enough – a famous Premier League club has joined the throng.

No, not Chelsea attempting to smother the unpleasant odour of racism emanating from the John Terry court case. Or, for that matter, Queen’s Park Rangers. Liverpool is the first Premier League club to be officially represented in an LBGT event in Britain. A banner featuring the club’s crest is to be carried by staff and members of the women’s team at next month’s Liverpool Pride.

According to Liverpool FC managing director Ian Ayre, the initiative is all about ridding football of homophobia. Earlier this year he helped organise a Football v Homophobia tournament hosted at the club’s academy. Good luck to him: it’s an all-too-evident flaw marring the Beautiful Game, and he’s trying to do something about it.

Less clear is what Kraft (and the others) are up to. Is there an identifiable gay cookie sector? Or do LBGTs simply consume cookies like everyone else? The Facebook campaign, which consisted of an image of an Oreo cookie with six layers of rainbow-coloured creams and the caption ‘Proudly Supports Love’, certainly managed to court controversy. Within a few days, there were 38,000 comments on the site, and nearly 250,000 ‘likes’. Most of the comments were positive, but some were decidedly hostile – and within a few days a ‘Boycott Oreo’ page had sprung up on Facebook, fueled no doubt by neat Bible-Belt bigotry.

Was Kraft really standing up to be counted? I doubt it. More likely, Barack Obama’s forthright backing for same-sex marriage has given brands “permission” to go mainstream on the subject.

By way of explanation Basil Maglaris, Kraft’s associate director of corporate affairs, tells us: “As a company, Kraft Foods has a proud history of celebrating diversity and inclusiveness. We feel the Oreo ad is a fun reflection of our values.”  A “fun reflection”, eh? The smile may be on the other side of its corporate face if Kraft visibly falls down on its employment diversity programme any time soon.



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