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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.

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The Epica Awards: Whatever happened to the 30-second ad?

December 7, 2012

EpicaYou don’t have to look far for this year’s Big Theme in the Epica creative advertising awards. After 25 years as a Eurocentric awards scheme, with a nod now and then to the wider EMEA hinterland, Epica finally went global, welcoming entries from the dynamic emerging markets of Brazil, Argentina, India and China – not to mention the biggest creative challenger of the lot, the USA.

A recalibration of award winners – agencies, networks and countries – was only to be expected. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that three out of the top four awards – the Epica d’Or or grand prix –  went to countries that had never before won a grand prix.

What didn’t change was the judging principle. Epica is unique in representing the choice not of the creative community itself but of experienced journalists drawn from trade magazines in over 24 countries. I would not wish to give the impression that their judgement has been skewed by an influx of jurors from the new world, because that would be entirely untrue. The panel remains, for now at least, what it has always been: essentially European. The new challenge is the enlarged scope of their perspective.

Enough of the preamble. Who got the big prize? That’s normally taken to mean the film Epica d’Or. And the answer is: a total outsider from Denmark. When I say ‘total’, I mean total: the campaign was produced not by an agency, but by the in-house communications team of coach operator Midttrafik. Simply stated, the problem with coach travel is it appeals to the head, not the heart. It offers a no-nonsense, value-for-money alternative to other modes of transport, but “cool” it is not. The creative solution proferred by Midttrafik is a piece of burlesque called “The Bus” that humorously highlights coach travel’s unglamorous practicalities: comfy seats, panoramic views, acres of space, 24/7 availability, special bus lanes, and experienced, reliable drivers who take the strain. See the film a couple of times and you too will be saying, “Ja, still cool,” and “Yeah. Din es ‘street'” with a Danish accent. Watch out for the young guy on an orange motocross bike: his expression is a treat.

While the campaign creatives may be amateurs, direction and production are slickly professional. Step forward Marc Wilkins/RARE and M2Film respectively, who managed to make the whole thing on a budget – I’m told – of only €200,000. “The Bus” also took top prize – as it must do to qualify for the Epica d’Or, a gold – in the transport & tourism category.

Runner-up for the top prize – and also winner of the corporate image category – was Marcel Publicis’s epic “Cartier Odyssey”. Filmed with icy majesty, it is a lapidary hommage to the life of Louis Cartier on the occasion of his 165th birthday (165th? Don’t ask why – we’re talking high fashion here) which deploys the watchmaker and jeweller’s iconic panther as its leitmotif. Beautiful – and yet there is a chilly emptiness at its heart. What exactly is the point of this 3 minute 30 second historical travelogue, supposedly made for the cinema?

For my money a good overall winner would have been “Follow the Frog”, devised by the Rainforest Alliance and Los Angeles agency Wander. But it was scored in the public interest category, which by definition excludes it from consideration for the top film or print prizes. The Rainforest logo is a kind of kite mark, reassuring consumers that the product in question has signed up to a prescribed set of environmental standards. The campaign – long enough for cinema but meant for viral –  needs little other explanation. As you will see:

Long, isn’t it? Indeed, if there is a general criticism of this year’s film crop – which is considerably better than last year’s – it is encapsulated in the word “overblown” – too long, too self-indulgent and too reliant upon humour. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about from Canal+ and BETC, “The Bear” – which won the direction and cinematography category and was a runner-up in media:

It’s a mini-film in its own right, which is all very well if you’re the next Ridley Scott with designs on Hollywood. But whatever happened to the discipline of the 30-second spot? Well, it’s here, in this Aldi/McCann Manchester offering (actually 20 seconds long). Not new, I know – but as a seam of inspiration it’s seemingly inexhaustible. It won gold in the confectionery & snacks category:

Print winners: what can I say without a despairing note in my voice? It’s a fading format, with one or two redemptive examples of excellence. The overall winner this year – a first from Finland – was McDonald’s “Large Coffee”, devised by DDB Helsinki:

McDonald's

It’s probably better as a candidate for the outdoor prize, but no matter. That went to the Microloan Foundation’s “Pennies for Life”, devised by DLKW Lowe. Think wishing-well meets poster in an innovative digital format and you’re half-way there. Microloan is a charity that supports women in Africa setting up their own business. The idea is that you contribute virtual spare pennies via your smart phone, and watch the digitally-generated poster image take shape as the coffers swell:

Microloan

While on the subject of outdoor, one of the cleanest examples of the genre was “Stop Trying”, a gold winner in the household category devised by Herezie (a French agency) for Vapona. Not desperately original, but classic: strong, simple colourful imagery is complemented with unmistakable branding in the bottom right-hand corner. Brownie points to Herezie for pulling it off in a difficult, low-interest category:Flyswatter

And finally…

  • Germany once again topped the rankings, with a total of 66 awards, including 9 gold winners.
  • Britain moved up from fourth to second, at the expense of France and Sweden, which were third and fourth respectively. It won 56 awards but an unsurpassed 13 golds.
  • Top agencies were Jung von Matt Hamburg, with 16 awards (including two golds), followed by last year’s winner Forsman & Bodenfors, Gothenburg, which captured 10 awards and two golds.
  • Most successful network was DDB, with one Grand Prix and 8 golds. Next in line were Leo Burnett and Publicis Worldwide.
  • More on the awards here.

Foley departure kickstarts the Aldi Prosperity Index

August 13, 2009

AldiI note that Paul Foley, managing director of Aldi’s UK and Irish division, has inexplicably stepped down after 20 years service at the German discount retailer.

When I say “inexplicably” I mean the company is coy about his reasons for going, resorting to the usual euphemisms of “departure by mutual consent” so he can “pursue new business interests”.

It is entirely possible that Foley has had enough after 20 years and would like to do something else. But I cannot help noticing that his departure coincides with a significant slowing of Aldi’s growth. This had been prodigious.

In a like vein, rival discount chain Lidl recently announced a change of policy in Ireland. It said that, because of consumer demand, it would in future be stocking fewer discount lines and more brands.

Have we got a trend here? Analysts say maybe we have. It’s called Tesco, which has done damage to the discounters by successfully launching its own discount ranges to cater for belt-tightened times.

But I wonder whether something more significant is playing out. Perhaps what we have here is the Aldi Prosperity Index in action, and it’s indicating not that the recession is over but that the beginning of the end is nigh. The discounters are recession bellwethers whose pace tends to slacken once the worst is over.

The Aldi Prosperity Index may not sound a very scientific indicator, but then neither is the Champagne Index, the Taxi Availability Index or, my own favourite, the Marketing Week Recruitment Page Count in the second week of January (generally the largest volume of the year).

There it is then, a new economic indicator – the Aldi Prosperity Index, which works on the inverse principle that the slower Aldi’s growth rate, the more prosperous we will be.


Food for thought over research findings

July 6, 2009

FairtradeWhy am I not entirely convinced by new research from PR agency Cohn & Wolfe that claims about two-thirds of British consumers will cut back on organic food and pay less for ethically-sourced products even after the recession is over?

Let me say straight away that my reservations have nothing to do with the methodology of the survey – carried out by Lightspeed – which seems entirely beyond reproach.

My qualms have more to with human nature. People don’t tend to tell the truth, or at least the entire truth, when quizzed about this sort of thing. To be sure they are preoccupied with value lines, as the current success of Lidl and Aldi demonstrates. But then, we’re in the middle of a rather severe recession and every penny counts – doesn’t it? – especially if you’ve been made redundant.

Where I’m more sceptical is about reading consumers long-term intentions. They’ve said this sort of thing before, in previous recessions. But they’re quite happy to go back to premium lines (upmarket, fairtrade, or ‘green’) once prosperity returns. Lidl and Aldi tend to disappear off the retail analysts’ map during such periods, as they assiduously monitor the waxing margins of Waitrose, M&S and the like.

However, I have no reason to doubt Geoff Beattie, head of Cohn & Wolfe Global Practices, when he says: “A more prudent shopper is emerging”. These shoppers are internet-savvy about price comparisons, even where supermarket groceries are concerned. It would seem from the survey that they are also comparing supermarkets more critically with locally produced food – and quite often finding the supermarket value-for-money mantra a bit of a myth.


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