Horsegate rumbles on but Tesco shouldn’t be the scapegoat

We’re only a month into what will be a long-term issue for the food and retailing sectors and Tesco as ever is getting the brunt of criticism despite making some very decisive moves to admit failures and find solutions.


Tesco has a big role to play in the food industry’s recovery but it shouldn’t be a scapegoat. Its brand has taken a pummelling, according to YouGov BrandIndex – more so than any other retail brand involved. It’s Buzz rating – a net balance of the positive and negative things consumers have heard about the brand – is down at -44.1 from around 0 before the scandal broke, while Asda sits at -7.8 down from +3 and Aldi at -2.8 down from 18.6. No other brand has seen such a stark drop.

The supermarket’s latest move to up its commitment to British sourcing has both reassured and raised hackles in equal measure.

Tesco’s new commitments to longer and better relationships with British farmers and a vow to source all fresh chicken from the British Isles by July is a positive move. As always, nay-sayers (or should that be neigh-sayers in this case), are quicker and louder in vocalising their displeasure in whatever it is Tesco is doing.

A similar recent example is Harris & Hoole. Tesco investing in and supporting a small coffee chain is seen as duping people and false representation of a supposedly independent chain.

Tesco has for years been accused of riding rough-shod over its suppliers, bullying and squeezing costs to get every last drop from suppliers while maintaining its own margins. The new-found respect for suppliers comes in Tesco’s hour of need so the cynicism surrounding its actions is understandable. However, at the risk of outing myself as the ultimate big-business fan-boy, Tesco isn’t always the bad-guy it is made out to be.

Tesco – as the biggest UK supermarket and the first to be found wth horsemeat in its beef products – must be accountable for these transgressions in its supply chain but so must suppliers, regulators and other supermarkets. Horsegate is an industry-wide issue not a crisis entirely of Tesco’s doing.

That this scandal has come at a time when Tesco is already in the middle of a huge effort to rebuild its reputation means the supermarket’s brand is under even greater pressure to set out clearly what it stands for.

Tesco’s response has been “textbook’ according to retail analysts at Shore Capital and its approach to communications has been clear, consistent and transparent. Tesco might still be the brand we all love to hate but it has been much more visible than its rivals and in a way that has been genuine.

McDonald’s and Starbucks are examples of big brands in a similar position to Tesco, often scapegoated to represent everything bad about corporate business. While there are numerous aspects of their business practices to criticise (tax being just one in the case of Starbucks), there are also positives.

By their sheer scale, business such as McDonald’s, Tesco and Starbucks have the power to do more positive good than any smaller coffee shop, retail or burger chains can, but their brands are tarnished with negative associations of big business. McDonald’s links to British farmers has done more for British farming than the majority of consumers realise or give them credit for. Likewise, Starbucks is the biggest purchaser of Fair Trade coffee beans in the world.

It is easy to slate McDonald’s for the nation’s growing obesity problem and criticise it for peddling bad quality unhealthy food but it’s also lazy to do so. It relies on an ill-informed opinion that does nothing to address the wider issues at play.

The same is true of Tesco taking the flak for horsegate. There is a big job to do across the industry to restore consumer confidence, not just in beef products, but in the entire supply chain and scapegoating one brand above the others will not help the industry prove they are raising standards across the board.



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