Reputations are difficult to mend

It is, of course, a golden rule of marketing never to promise what you cannot deliver. Here, in a nutshell, is the underlying cause of an unseemly scrap between the Institute of Directors and the Institute of Public Policy Research over the issue of corporate social responsibility.

The IPPR has commissioned research into the practice of CSR, that most rarefied and hallowed of marketing tools, within leading companies. Since it would be difficult to rubbish the methodology of NOP’s independent research, we must assume that the IOD’s bellicose reaction relates to the unflattering disparity between CSR theory and practice in the findings. In other words, plenty of companies are talking CSR, but not many are doing the walking. The word ‘hypocrisy’ comes to mind. But we will never know for sure, because the IPPR research seems to have been gagged by the threat of legal action.

Hypocrisy is not something that Tetley, the market-leading tea company, could be accused of, but it has certainly come a spectacular cropper through promising what it cannot deliver. Its £15m campaign to relaunch itself on a health platform, regarded as critical to its future success, lies in ruins after running foul of both the Advertising Standards Authority, which regulates press and poster ads, and the Independent Television Commission, statutorily responsible for commercial television advertising.

Tetley executives are understandably outraged at what they regard as the bungling and inconsistent behaviour of the regulators, which has cost them so dear. How could it be, for example, that the line ‘Tetley tea is rich in antioxidants that help keep your heart healthy’ was one minute acceptable, after careful vetting by the Broadcasting Advertising Clearance Centre, only to be savaged by the ITC the next? What confidence can you have in a regulatory system at odds with itself? It must have been all the more galling to discover that this apparent capriciousness was caused by a change in expert opinion in the time between receiving BACC clearance and the ITC responding to complaints. How fickle the medical profession can be!

Ultimately, however, Tetley has itself to blame for this marketing fiasco. Desperate for some alchemy that would transform the fortunes of the tea market, it hit upon health – wilfully oblivious of the risks involved. Interestingly, Tetley’s chief rival, PG Tips, had also been driven to re-examine its strategy and, although attracted to a health positioning, backed away precisely because it was so risky.

But if Tetley is to blame, it is not uniquely to blame. The British Heart Foundation, which lent its logo to Tetley packs, may have stopped short of explicit endorsement. But it certainly gave the appearance of an endorsement. The BHF should be more careful of its reputation.

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