News broke this morning that a complaint against the design of the can for Tiny Rebel’s Cwtch has been upheld by the Portman Group.
The Portman Group is the beer industry’s organ for self-regulation, the purpose of which is, broadly speaking, to head off this kind of issue before things get really heavy. The complaint against Cwtch was that “a member of the public, believed that the product wasn’t obviously alcoholic, due to the design, and also had a particular appeal to children”.
We have a few thoughts on this.
First, we’ve been waiting for something like this to happen. As we wrote back in March 2016 craft beer cans often feature designs that mean they resemble soft drinks, and the borderline between fun and downright infantile is pretty fine. How do you design something that will appeal to a 19-year-old but not to a 17-year-old? This is an especially important question given that the former has been a large part of the success of the crop of craft breweries that have emerged in the last decade or so.
What perhaps doesn’t help is how often we see people chortling on social media that, tee hee, craft beer cans are great because The Man assumes you’re drinking pop! Heck, we’ve even played this game ourselves. And, vice versa, when people are constantly posting pictures of fizzy pop cans with variations on the joke, “This new IPA looks interesting.”
Then there’s a second point: the nagging suspicion we’ve had that Tiny Rebel have been following the BrewDog playbook (Brew Britannia, chapter 14) and angling for some kind of dispute in which they are the oppressed underdog for PR purposes. We’re sure they must have known that the packaging was provocative — teddy bears! Candy! Cartoon characters! — just as BrewDog knew Speedball was back in 2008. In addition Tiny Rebel seem to have been actively engaged in what we’d call ‘trademark baiting’, referencing characters owned by huge corporations such as Nintendo (Princess Peach), Disney (Darth Vader) and Sony (the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man). So far they’ve got away with it, as have Robinson’s, which we suppose makes it a win-win.
Then again, maybe we’re wrong. After all, the Portman Group’s judgement suggests that Tiny Rebel played ball throughout the process and have agreed to change the packaging.
Anyway, on balance, the judgement seems fair enough to us, and hardly draconian. It would certainly seem less controversial if it as AB-InBev or Carslberg in the firing line, wouldn’t it? This kind of back-and-forth over marginal cases is far better than hard-and-fast rules which tend to push the boundary back well into the safety zone. We would certainly start to worry, though, if these rulings begin to pile up and lead to, say, a de facto ban on the use of bright colours.