Cwtch Vs Portman Group - The Lowdown

December 13, 2017

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Cwtch Vs Portman Group - The Lowdown

We’ve had a busy few months, which is fairly normal for us. But it’s been a bit busier than usual for one reason.

Since July, we’ve been hard at work as a result of a complaint to the Portman Group, the alcohol industry’s “self-regulatory” body. Cans of our Champion Beer of Britain, Cwtch, have been found to be in breach of the Portman Group’s Code of Practice.

We would never have thought that one member of the public, an Industry body funded by the likes of ABInBev, Carlsberg & Diageo and a complaints panel made up of 10 people can cause this much damage to a brand. But in the words of RUN DMC, it’s like that and that’s the way it is.

In short, it hasn’t been very fun. But it’s over now...kind of.

So what is the result of that long and difficult process?

The change that’s required is minimal. Take a look and see for yourself.

*The only change is moving our logo round to the back of the can.

There are loads of really great points on twitter and in the beer writing world, most of which were included in our defense to the Independent Complaints Panel a few months ago. We don’t need to repeat them here, mainly because they’re really just common sense.

(ok, we’ll repeat a few of them: colours are not specifically related to under 18s, soft drinks don’t have a monopoly on cans, and the combination of beer, colour and can is neither new nor evil)

One thing we should point out before anything is that we can’t just ignore it - In a memo to the House of Commons Health Select Committee in 2009, the Portman Group stated that the code is “self-regulatory and...therefore sometimes referred to as “voluntary”. This...is potentially misleading...Compliance with the codes is mandatory; there is no opt-out for any drinks manufacturer.”

The facts are: we communicated regularly with the Portman Group over the past 5 months and actually found them to be an alright bunch, and we obviously disagree with the Panel’s decision, but have to do what they say because they have us over a barrel commercially.

We’re not the victim here. The industry is.

This sets a precedent, but the boundaries on that precedent aren’t clear and the decisions are enormously subjective, and take in a very limited view of the world. How the hell do you not appeal to under 18s?! There is no clear difference between what is and isn’t allowed, and that’s a major problem.

It forces companies to be over-cautious in design, which is inherently limiting. Instead of designing something for what consumers would like, companies have to design bearing what the most prudish among us wouldn’t like.

In a country of nearly 66 million people, just one complaint has forced us to change. It’s taken five months of work, nearly £30,000 in costs*, and a fair bit of stress, for a tiny change that only affects cans, in the UK market, after 1st April 2018. (We can’t sell this can after that, but wholesalers and trade customers can continue to - that means they’ll be limited edition so grab them when you can!)

You won’t see us going after the Portman Group or the Independent Complaints Panel to get our name out there or make a fuss out of it. We won’t be screaming “nanny state” or “Tiny Rebel is being oppressed” or anything like that. We’d actually just like to get back to making beer and having fun while we do it.

What we’re saying is - these are the rules, and we’ll have to play by them, but we need to talk about the rules, their purpose, who sets them and how they’re enforced. And we need that conversation to include everyone in the alcohol industry. We will always push the boundaries - it’s in our name - but we’ll never intentionally break them.

One complaint can’t be the basis of this change. A system like that is open to abuse, which wastes our time, and that of the regulator, who have genuinely important stuff to be getting on with.

The Portman Group is meant to be a self-regulatory body, but we don’t see a “craft”, indie or micro brewery on the list of funders, consultants or the panel. Advice is from a massively limited cross-section of society. The voice of small brewers is only heard when they’re defending themselves.

This ruling requires us and our branding to evolve. We think it’s fair for us to ask the same of the regulator. And by speaking up and communicating publically, we’re doing all we can to put the “self” in “self-regulation”.

This isn’t about us. This is about the defence of fun and creativity. We are only the beginning.

-----

To clear any confusion, we’d like to give you an idea of the whole process.

First of all, it’s important to note that we’ve never agreed to be bound by the rules of the Portman Group, but that doesn’t matter. Code Rule 1.9 states:

The Code applies to all companies involved in the production of alcohol. All companies in the alcoholic drinks industry, including retailers, should indicate their support for the Code and their willingness to abide by the decisions of the Independent Complaints Panel by becoming Code Signatories. Not doing so, however does not mean that their products are outside the provisions of the Code.

So by deciding to produce alcohol, we enter into an inferred agreement with the regulatory body.

A complaint can be made to the Portman Group by anyone. The Portman Group will confirm that no legal action is taking place between the complainant and the producer before getting involved.

The Secretary to the Independent Complaints Panel will either suggest “Fast Track” processing (where changes or “remedial action” are agreed before the Panel meets, or there is some other resolution), or refer the issue to the Independent Complaints Panel for further investigation.

Remember, it only takes one isolated complaint for this to happen.

The producer is notified and given a dossier of information, including similar or relevant cases. It is also pointed out that the Panel is “not bound to restrict its consideration of the product’s packaging or promotion to the narrow terms of the complaint but may consider...any section of the Code that it considers relevant.”

The producer can then respond to the complaint, offering the Panel their argument, and request to present to the Panel, before the final decision is reached.

The producer is notified of the decision and suggested actions. It is then up to the producer to take action.

All decisions are published - whether complaints are upheld or not. If the complaint is upheld, and if the producer decides to take the suggested actions, the Portman Group will only release a Press Release.

If the producer does not commit to the suggested changes in the given time frame, the Portman Group will release a Retail Alert Bulletin (RAB)

A RAB is sent to all subscribers and signatories of the code, which includes most of the country’s major on- and off-trade retailers. It identifies the product that does not comply with the code and demands that it not be stocked. Any Code Signatories that do not comply with this demand are threatened with being expelled from the list of Code Signatories. They have no option - no company is going to risk negative press that comes from being booted from the country’s “leading alcohol responsibility body” for the sake of stocking one brand. There is no conversation, no negotiation. Just an immediate halt.

As a result, failure to comply with the Portman Group’s suggested actions results the loss of customers and sales, and could cripple a small business financially.

*Cost Breakdown

Pre Decision

Solicitor fees

£4,500.00

TR Staff Costs (time spent on fighting this)

£6,400.00

Train costs to London

£640.00

Air BnBs

£660.00

Expenses, London tube and ting

£700.00

Pre Total

£12,900.00

Post Decision

New design and plate for print

£2,537.00

Loss of Cwtch can stock

£8,000.00

POS Rebranding and Manufacture

£2,500.00

Post Total

£13,037.00

Other Brands potentially affected

Clwb Can - New design and plate for print

£2,537.00

Cali Can - New design and plate for print

£2,537.00

Other Brand Total

£5,074.00

Grand Total

£31,011.00

 





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