This is an outrage.
It’s bad enough that Welsh craft brewer Tiny Rebel’s bestselling Cwtch ale has fallen foul of booze industry watchdog the Portman Group after a single punter complained that the cans would appeal to under-18s.
But it’s even more insane than that.
This is the second time in three years that Cwtch has been rapped by the Portman Group on exactly the same issue. So the last time it happened, Tiny Rebel splashed out £30,000 rebranding and relaunching the craft brew – with input and sign-off from the watchdog, to the watchdog’s specifications.
That’s right. The Portman Group has effectively ruled against itself. On the whim of one shopper’s complaint.
How craven is that?
Regulators are well known for taking the side of the consumer. At the ASA it often only takes a single complaint and ads are pulled. Like the KFC ‘who gives a cluck?’ ad that was deemed vulgar this week. In 2019. Pulled.
But the Portman Group’s ruling here makes the introduction of VAR in the Premier League look like a success.
In theory it risks the Portman Group’s reputation as much as anything. But it’s no laughing matter for Tiny Rebel, which faces being forced to pull all stock of Cwtch from the shelves, at a time when off-trade sales are up 75% [Nielsen 52 w/e 7 September].
The Portman Group should be carrying the can for this. Not Tiny Rebel.
Understandably, Tiny Rebel feels this is yet another stitch-up from the big boys who fund the Portman Group.
The beer is one of numerous craft cans brought before the Portman Group by members of the public this week – two, notably, being owned (or part-owned) by big brewers (AB InBev’s Camden Town Brewery and Beavertown, of which Heineken owns 49%). Rulings on neither of which were upheld.
That’s not to suggest any foul play here. Bigger brewers have more money to spend scrutinising their packaging, examining the small print and building their cases when challenged on their packs. And The Portman Group’s complaints panel is independent.
But when the Portman Group itself has given a redesign the green light, how can it backtrack like this without an independent brewer understandably feeling like the big boys are being given a free pass?
And let’s be honest: while Cwtch does somewhat resemble the colouring of Refreshers and Fruit Salads, the difference between the cans and its competitors, when it comes to the tangible risk of them appealing to under-18s, is negligible.
Walk down any craft aisle. The lion’s share of the cans have bright, colourful packaging and interesting, creative graphics – the entire category aesthetic was based on grabbing people from the first time they laid eyes on the beers. It’s a huge part of why people were drawn to it in the first place.
The watchdog itself has called Tiny Rebel’s double-whammy “highly unusual” and expressed regret at the potential cost to the brewer. Big deal. The Portman Group should either be picking up the tab or backing its own judgement in the first place.
Not surprisingly, Tiny Rebel says it is “choosing to decline the Portman Group’s request this time around”.
But it’s risky. If the Portman Group now issues a Retail Alert Bulletin it would be no laughing matter.
According to a Portman Group spokeswoman, these bulletins are “only ever used as a last resort” when a producer refuses to resolve “problematic” elements of their packaging.
But with Tiny Rebel sticking to its guns, where does the Portman Group go from here? It’s a real crisis. And yet with a little bit of common sense over the number of complaints it’s received - just that one - it could blow over in a second.
Daniel has written about food and drink for the majority of his career: prior to joining The Grocer in 2017, Daniel covered food and drink news on pub industry title The Morning Advertiser, and wrote features for VICE magazine.
Follow Daniel on Twitter: @WoolfsonDrinks