Sorry Costa – are you better than Caffe Nero too?

June 16, 2010

Practical experience has long told us that Costa coffee tastes better than the Starbucks brew. So Costa, owned by Whitbread, must have felt on a pretty safe wicket when it came up with a knocking campaign to prove the point. Do its research properly, and it would romp home.

So it turned out. Costa launched a poster and print campaign, via Kamarama, which rejoiced in such wounding straplines as: “Sorry Starbucks: the people have voted”; “Starbucks drinkers prefer Costa” and “Seven out of ten coffee lovers prefer Costa”. And it was a winner. Costa’s sales, on a like-for-like basis, rose 5.5% during the period (though how much of this was share stolen from the unfortunate Starbucks I do not know).

Most wounding of all, no one complained about the unfairness of it all. Well, almost no one. A single complaint was lodged with the appropriate watchdog, the Advertising Standards Authority. Guess who lodged it? A comprehensive inquiry investigating everything from Costa’s methodology to the size of its small print followed. And the result? Triumphant vindication for Costa and superheated milk-froth in the face for Starbucks, all five of whose grounds for complaint were rejected. Game, set and match to Costa.

In such circumstances, it might seem churlish to rain on Costa’s parade, but I do have a niggle. Well, more an enquiry really. The ASA seems more than happy with the professionalism of the market research on which these sensational Costa claims were based, so who am I to complain? Just for the record, though, the blind-taste tests in question also involved a Caffe Nero cappuccino, which alternated with Starbucks’ equivalent brew as the foil to the Costa product. Yet we hear nothing of what our sample thought of Caffe Nero vis-à-vis Costa. Common sense suggests it performed rather better than the Starbucks product, which has unkindly been compared to a warm adult milkshake. But the ASA adjudication document does not make this entirely clear. Supposedly, the full research results are published on See if you can find them. I can’t.

On a footnote, taste isn’t everything. If it were, Pepsi would long since have overtaken Coca-Cola in the UK, according – so I am told – to periodic blind-taste tests.

UPDATE: You will search in vain for the research findings on the Costa website: they have been removed. However, a kindly PR has provided me with a copy of the results and I can report the following:

“Preference for Costa’s cappuccino is remarkably strong in comparison to competitors among those who identified themselves as “Coffee lovers”, With 7 out of 10 preferring Costa (with 72% preferring Costa versus 28% Starbucks; and 69% preferring Costa versus 31% Nero). Significantly, coffee drinkers who prefer Caffè Nero and Starbucks as their main outlets preferred Costa cappuccino over their preferred retailer’s product.”

MPs bank on the FSA regulatory model to beat binge-drinking

January 8, 2010

I seem to remember Oliver Cromwell once tried to ban mince pies. Reading the recommendations of the long-awaited House of Commons health select committee report on alcohol abuse, I get the impression that a number of our MPs have been infected with the same joyless dedication to futile causes as Cromwell’s not-so-merry men in the Long Parliament.

Do they really think that putting a minimum price of 50p on a unit of alcohol will help to staunch binge-drinking? Ireland levies still higher taxes than us on alcohol, yet is the biggest binge-drinking nation in the EU (Luxembourg maybe excepted).

Do they really think that introducing a 9pm watershed ban for TV advertising will do the trick for under-18 year olds (as if most are tucked up in bed by then, have never used a PVR, or heard of internet protocol TV)?

Do they really think they have any effective power over what messages go onto off-shore social media websites?

Do they really think the ultimate solution is to take regulation out of the hands of the Advertising Standards Authority and the industry-funded Portman Group and place it with a “Financial Services Authority (FSA) style body”? As if there were no very deep irony in that suggestion?

Sadly they do. It is the “FSA” proposal in particular that sums up the committee’s retrograde, quixotic thinking. Retrograde, because it suggests that statutory regulation is the way forward, when all the momentum in advertising regulation over the past few years has been achieved through toughening up self-regulation and creating a partnership between industry and government. Change4Life and Business4Life provide an illuminating example of how this concordat has worked in another contentious sector. Yet it is no isolated instance. The drinks industry itself is engaged in an identifiably similar  partnership with the 5-year Drink Aware programme. These new proposals simply throw a spanner in the works of self-regulation, with unsettling implications for the broader marketing community.

The committee’s argument for departing from the new orthodoxy seems to be that alcohol is a special case demanding rigorous vigilance of the sort uniquely provided by the statutory regulator overseeing financial services. Which planet have all these MPs been living on recently? The FSA is a discredited body. It showed itself to be corrupt and ineffectual as one of the “tripartite” regulators of the UK financial system during the late credit crunch. Although it has since been radically overhauled under new chairman Adair Turner, reform may earn it no more than a stay of execution. The Conservatives, who seem increasingly likely to form the next government, have made it clear they intend to abolish the FSA and roll a number of its functions into the Bank of England.

No matter. The probable trajectory of most, if not all, of these proposals is into the waste-paper bin of history, for the reason mentioned above: an imminent change of government. Cursory examination of Tory policy on this matter (the Public Health Commission) suggests that Cameron and co will attempt to streamline regulation in the food, soft drinks and alcohol sectors into a single policy framework guided by a so-called Responsibility Deal with the relevant industry sectors. In other words, they are wedded to the concept of self-regulation, albeit of a more vigilant, effective variety. Ah yes, you may object: aren’t you missing the point? The House of Commons health committee is an independently constituted body of MPs which owes no allegiance to the Government of the day. Its proposals are likely, therefore, to hold as much authority under a Conservative government as a Labour one. Well, yes and no. The MPs themselves may be relatively independent backbenchers, but the complexion of the committee, and who chairs it, is indirectly influenced by who is in power. Which will have an ideological bias on any future recommendations it arrives at.

I’m not, of course, suggesting that alcoholism and binge drinking aren’t serious social problems deserving government intervention. On the contrary, some of the committee’s suggestions are clearly constructive. Certainly more of the industry’s estimated £800m a year spent on advertising and sponsorship could be usefully channelled into the promotion of public health. Other ideas, however, are pure lunacy. The recommendation, for example, that no event should be sponsored by a drinks advertiser if more than 10% of its attendees are under 18 would have a disastrous impact upon music festivals and, more importantly, sport  – if ever implemented.

Shane Warne, Cheryl Cole, Gordon Brown and a spate of bad-hair advertising

November 25, 2009

It must be national bad hair week and I hadn’t noticed. Nothing else would seem to explain the explosion of hair-related controversies in the media.

Most recent is the shocking case of Australian cricket legend Shane Warne’s hair loss. He and his follicularly-challenged partner in crime Graham Gooch have just been banned. But not, you’ll be glad to hear, from playing cricket. No, it’s much more trivial than that. The Advertising Standards Authority has cracked down on an ad created for trichologist Advanced Hair Studio – promoting its laser therapy and “strand by strand” technology – to whom our two sporting heroes have been lending not only their prestige but their balding pates.

I’m a little at sea over why the ASA has taken two years to reach such a Draconian verdict. After all, the ad doesn’t actually say that AHS cures hair loss.

Which moves me neatly on to hair crisis number two: the case of Cheryl Cole’s false locks. How come that Elvive can get away with plying a palpably false impression of bountiful, bouncing, natural hair, while AHS isn’t even given the benefit of a few reimplanted strands? The answer, as so often, lies in the small print. The ASA found in favour of Elvive because it provided subliminally small disclaimers about Cheryl’s hair not being entirely her own (quite a lot is nylon, I gather). This is not, I’m afraid, a finding which sits happily within the ASA remit of  upholding “legal, decent, honest and truthful” advertising. Such dishonesty is more widespread in cosmetics advertising than we would like to believe.

The third bad hair advertising controversy is not so much a case of fairness as of silliness. I refer to the opening rounds of our forthcoming general election campaign and the two stunningly original poster ads it has so far produced: one for the Conservative Party (Euro RSCG) and one for Labour (Saatchi & Saatchi), both pillorying each other as the Jedwards, whose twin misfortunes are to have been evicted from the X-Factor, and to be burdened with a hairstyle that must make Shane Warne think twice about the wisdom of hair implants. The ASA won’t be allowed to touch these ads, more’s the pity.

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