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At 9.50 on Thursday morning a display of “good old-fashioned” soft drinks was still intact at my local Woolworths.
Ten minutes later the metal shelves were bare, but for the now infamous labels: Fiery Ginger Beer, Cream Soda, Cinnamon Cola.
Ironically, despite being the focus of the Woolworths-rips-off-small-company’s-unique-soft-drinks-range media furore, the candy-striped bottles had been flying off the shelves, according to Woolworths’ CEO Ian Moir.
“Frankie’s isn’t the only company to see a spike in the sales of their vintage drinks range,” he said. “And we’ve had an enormous backlash from customers who enjoy the flavours and are very upset that we’ve pulled the range … we almost can’t win”.
But the range is no more, and most of those candy-striped bottles will be donated to charities.
The KwaZulu-Natal Midlands-based company Frankie’s lodged a complaint with the Advertising Standards Authority in December, claiming, essentially, that Woolworths had copied its marketing and promotional line, “good old-fashioned”.
It was a surprisingly narrow complaint, given that Frankie’s owner Mike Schmidt was being reported in the media as accusing Woolworths of blatantly copying his flavour names – Fiery Ginger Beer, Cinnamon Cola and clear Cream Soda – as well as the candy stripe on the Frankie’s label.
The ASA sided with Frank-ie’s on the “good old-fashioned” line last Wednesday, bringing the David versus Goliath battle to a sensational climax.
Woolworths could simply have reprinted its labels on the range to remove the offending “good old-fashioned” line, and kept it on its shelves, and its first post-ASA ruling press release suggested that this was exactly what it intended to do.
But by late Thursday afternoon, Moir conceded that “public sentiment is against us” and announced that the entire range would be scrapped.
In other words, anti-Woolies public sentiment was flooding Twitter and Facebook.
Moir remains adamant that Woolworths didn’t set out to rip off the Frankie’s range.
So why did I, and many others who are familiar with the Frankie’s range, clap eyes on the Woolies retro soft drink range in December and assume that Frankie’s was supplying it to Woolworths?
“That’s because Frankie’s was firmly established in your mind as a vintage soda range,” Moir told me.
Retro was an international trend, and those flavours and heritage/vintage design cues – such as candy stripes – were being used by other brands in other markets, he said.
“You can’t own those things any more than you can own vanilla ice-cream.”
Woolies’s biggest lesson, Moir says, was the power and impact of social media. “We need to be in that space, responding to comments with facts,” he said.
He tells of being interview-ed live on radio about the Frankie’s issue, when the interviewer began reading out tweets and asking for his response.
“Social media is merging with traditional media, and we need to manage that,” Moir said. “Because a lot of what’s on social media is factually incorrect.”
It’s an issue that has a lot of corporates in a bit of a spin.
A large corporate has proposed that the Consumer Goods Council of SA convene a social media workshop to thrash out the issues.
Never before have perception and popular opinion had such power.