Horsemeat scandal highlights purpose of brands

by Alex Benady

One of the fascinating aspects of the current horsemeat-in-your-lasagne scandal is that it takes us back to the original purpose of brands. With echoes of the banking crisis, it has tarnished trust in brands that has taken nearly a century to build. It’s yet another blow to the reputation of ‘business’ generally.

In recent decades, society has viewed brands primarily as vehicles for personal expression. They have been used by consumers to make statements about themselves, the kind of people they are, their aspirations and limitations.

But the first fmcg brands emerged in the Victorian era, not to express lifestyle choices, but to reassure consumers about the provenance of their foodstuffs.

In an unregulated world where unscrupulous tradesmen would adulterate milk with lead compounds, grind sand into sugar and mix rendered animal fats with butter, consumers needed to be assured that the products they bought were pure and unadulterated.

A manufacturer’s brand was a trustmark. It reassured customers that the brand owner had taken responsibility for sourcing and that they could swear that the product was what it said on the label, with no adulterations.

So today we buy a lasagne from Findus or Tesco, and assume that they have carried out thorough checks on the provenance of their ingredients. Quite clearly they haven’t. These brands may have been the victims of fraud, but it is also clear that the modern food supply chain is so complex that such thorough checking is nearly impossible.

It’s a bit like the financial crisis of 2008. Complacency crept in because decades of safety had lulled us into thinking that bank crashes were a thing of the past. But financial products had become so complex that no one could control them or even understand them.

Just as banks suffered immense damage to their reputations as a result of the crash, so there is a danger that the very concept of ‘brands’ could be tarnished by the horsemeat scandal. How do we really know that a claim like ‘natural’ or ‘fresh’ or ‘organic’ is true? No matter who makes it. The answer is of course, we don’t.

I suspect that similar issues will emerge in other food categories like oils, jams, breads and some cosmetics. Consumers will now be questioning the very point of a brand. If they can’t swear on their mothers’ graves that their ingredients are pure, what role does the brand have? What purpose does it serve?

Part of the answer will lie in the extent to which they can recover from just this sort of crisis. Perrier recovered from a Benzene tainting scare in 1990. And Persil reovered from the Persil Power fiasco of 1995.

But Sunny Delight never really recovered from the news that it could turn you orange if you drank too much. And it is said that if the Persil power fiasco had happened to its rival Ariel, it would have been finished. It was promoted on a platform of efficacy, not charm.

So, ironically it seems that one of the prime function of brands has become to protect the business of the brand owner, rather than the interests of the consumer. The sooner that reverses, the better for everybody.


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