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Frankie’s mugging at the hands of the Woolies bullies

‘Tis the season past of warm and fuzzy feelings to all. Or so the corporates would have us believe, as they do their annual festive fandango of pinching our cheeks with one hand and our wallets with the other.

After all the fake bonhomie, the heart sings when a business behemoth that spends mega-millions on trying to influence positively the public’s perception of itself, screws up the simple stuff. Nothing quite like watching the consternation on a corporate hypocrite’s face when it puts a shotgun to its foot and pulls the trigger, only to find it is loaded.

This time it was Woolworths, the retail brand that more than any other has captured the imagination of the chattering classes with its green credentials: its wholesome, organic foods: and its proclamations of fair trade commitment to the small trader.

That’s not the experience of Frankie’s Olde Soft Drinks, a KwaZulu-Natal micro-manufacturer with a cult following. After painstakingly building its brand of retro-softdrink tastes, it tried to get onto Woolies’ shelves. But within a year of Frankie’s being shown the door, Woolworths brought out its own nostalgia-brand that looks disconcertingly similar.

Woolies proclaims innocence, arguing that “retro is not a new concept … We have used vintage design for many years in products [and] flavours such as cream soda, ginger beer and cola have been widely used internationally for decades”.

Many are unconvinced. A food website straw-poll drew a couple of thousand quick pre-Christmas votes, of whom only 23% agreed with the Woolworths defence, while two-thirds thought it was “blatant theft” deserving of a consumer boycott. Since then a bunch of Frankie’s fans have set up Facebook page imploring Woolworths to “stop faking Frankie’s — stick up for the little guy”.

The retail giant appears taken aback by the public ire that the launch of their clearly imitative but plausibly legally defensible range has aroused. Though the anti-Woolies campaign appears to have run out of steam as consumers concentrate on holidays rather than corporate shenanigans, Woolworths must be hoping that the new year does not bring new impetus to its critics.

Mike Schmidt, founder of Frankie’s, says that while he obviously has no ownership of the retro or cola concepts, Woolworths “used the strapline directly off of our product and stuck it on to their bottle. It’s a virtual clone of Frankie’s, creating customer confusion”.

Woolworths concedes that it met in a “very high level meeting” with Frankie’s prior to launching its own range, but says that no intellectual property was discussed. It never mentioned anything about planning its own range but, says Schmidt, instead declined Frankie’s on the grounds that it was “out of character” for the Woolworths’ brand.

This is where Woolies plunges into morally murky waters. It fails to explain why it would meet with Frankie’s at a “senior buying level”, with the launch of its own line imminent. And when such a meeting occurred, why would it not have informed Frankie’s that there was a conflict of interest?

Finally, let’s assume Woolworths was guileless albeit dumb through this whole process, despite its many lavishly paid executives. It is still inexplicable that it would launch a product line that at first glance over a crowded supermarket appears indistinguishable — in individual product names, bottle-neck shapes, flavours, labelling colours and typefaces — from those of a competitor that it refused to stock because the product did not chime with the Woolworths’ brand.

Many, if not most, corporates rely on their deep pockets and market clout to intimidate smaller rivals and gouge small suppliers. Woolworths, despite all its sanctimonious marketing pap, is behaving no differently. If it wants to retrieve the situation it needs to produce a heartfelt mea culpa and back off. Or is one to understand that corporate muggings, like free-range eggs, are synonymous with the Woolworths’ brand?


  • William Saunderson-Meyer

    This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.