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Woolies plunged into another Frankiestein nightmare

For the individual, strident public assertions of one’s unassailable virtue have few consequences beyond sceptical smirks and a possible shortage of dates for Saturday night. For corporations, though, it’s more complicated.

In a world where consumer distrust is increasingly the norm, if such self-proclaimed corporate virtue is believed genuine, it can deliver fanatical levels of customer loyalty. Think Apple, albeit the shine has diminished in recent years.

On the other hand, if consumers begin to suspect that the supposed virtue is a sham, the disillusionment can spark a disproportionate anger at this perceived betrayal. After all, no one likes to be taken for a ride. Think Woolworths, which is being roasted for allegedly ripping off the work of a young designer, Euodia Roets.

Woolworths, like it’s British alter ego Marks & Spencers, has built its brand around fair trade, fair dealing, supporting local small suppliers and encouraging local artisanal products. As it proclaims at every opportunity: ‘We take our values seriously. They aren’t just words in an annual report; they’re the foundation of our business.’

This has paid handsome dividends, with ‘Woolies’ carving a snug place in the hearts of middle-class shoppers. But following a couple of incidents – at best managerial blunders; at worst, cynically sharp practice – Woolworths’ values are being questioned.

Roets says Woolworths approached her to add a hummingbird design of hers to their product range. Following a protracted process during which she provided various completed fabric samples, the buyer abruptly decided not to proceed.

Then a week ago she found Woolworths had brought out a cushion bearing what she says is her hummingbird, with some minor modifications. Woolworths rejects Roets’ version, saying that long prior to Roets, it had concluded a deal with another designer for the hummingbird image.

This may well be true, although it seems odd, certainly unwise, to open negotiations with Roets for a hummingbird after having already signed elsewhere for another. In any case, Woolworths is seeking cover behind the letter of the law when its problem is not a legal one, but a perceptual one.

There have been hundreds of online postings critical of Woolworths’ ethics, with tales from other designers of similar shenanigans by retailers, including allegedly by Woolworths. Many cite another Woolworths blunder, when last year the retailer got into a protracted public battle with Frankie’s Olde Soft Drinks, a KwaZulu-Natal micro-manufacturer with a cult following.

After years of building its brand of retro-softdrinks Frankie’s had tried to get onto Woolies’ shelves. As with Roets, after lengthy negotiations, Frankie’s was suddenly shown the door. A few months later Woolworths brought out its own nostalgia-brand that looked disconcertingly similar.

As is the case now, Woolworths professed innocence of wrongdoing. It claimed it coincidence that a product it had rejected as ‘out of character’ with its image, was suddenly being produced under the Woolworths label in similar bottles and flavours, as well as slogan, to that of Frankie’s.

It was only when the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that Woolworths had deliberately copied Frankie’s and ordered the retailer to remove its the look-alike products from the shelves, that Woolies backed down. Meanwhile the retailer had taken a five-month online drubbing for what was perceived to be bullying and unethical behaviour.

Woolworths now admits that the Frankie’s incident was a ‘debacle’ for the company. Chief executive Ian Moir said at the time ‘Whilst we maintain that we have not copied … it is clear that public sentiment is against us. Customer opinion is much more important to us than the right or wrong of this issue.’ In similar vein, just a few months back, Woolies chair Simon Susman identified as key to the brand’s strength an adherence to ‘deep-seated values’, including integrity, which are ‘entrenched in the psyche of our organisation’.

Perhaps Woolworth’s managers and buyers should follow their executives’ bold proclamations of corporate virtue more carefully. Whether out of cupidity or naiveté, they’ve again put the Woolworth’s reputation up for public interrogation.

As for Roets, she’s made up her mind. ‘It’s my belief that my designs were sent to another manufacturer and adapted. It seems the only thing that Woolworths learnt from the Frankie’s debacle was how to disguise their plagiarism,’ she writes on her website, Touchee Feelee.

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  • 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.