Thursday, May 17, 2012

Corporate Bullies: Diageo and Jaguar/Land Rover

One of the things Diageo and Jaguar have in common is that I like their products. Diageo is a huge international corporation which owns a great many brands in the alcoholic beverage business. If you’re a drinker at all, chances are that one of their products is your favorite beer (Guinness, Smithwick’s, Red Stripe) or Scotch (Johnnie Walker) or rum (Myers) or gin (Tanqueray) or tequila (Jose Cuervo) or… well, you get the idea.

Jaguar is the car I’ve always wanted. I won’t ever have one, but since I was a little kid, it was always my dream car—over Ferraris and Lamborghinis and whatever else. The red Jag driven by Inspector Morse always intrigued me more than James Bond’s Aston Martin or even the Batmobile.

The other thing the two corporations have in common is that both are portrayed as amoral bullies in stories I’ve run across in the last few days. Diageo first.

The BII (the apparently now-official title of what used to be the British Institute of Innkeeping), in association with Diageo, presented awards in various categories at a gala affair in Glasgow on May 6. The folks at BrewDog were alerted that they might fare well in the Bar Operator of the Year category. But when the award was announced, they didn’t win. I’ll let their man James (presumably, but not necessarily, co-founder James Watt) pick it up from there:
This disappointment was further compounded when one of the judges (seated at our table) told us in disbelief “this simply cannot be, the independent judging panel voted for BrewDog as clear winners of the award.”

Events took a further twist when the people who got given the award refused to accept it as it clearly had “BrewDog” engraved on the trophy as winners.

On Tuesday, 2 days after the award, I (James) took a phone call from Kenny Mitchell, Chairman of the BII in Scotland and Chairman of the Award Committee explaining the situation. To directly quote Kenny:

“We are all ashamed and embarrassed about what happened. The awards have to be an independent process and BrewDog were the clear winner.”

“Diageo (the main sponsor) approached us at the start of the meal and said under no circumstances could the award be given to BrewDog. They said if this happened they would pull their sponsorship from all future BII events and their representatives would not present any of the awards on the evening.”
OK, even if the Diageo reps had been sampling a little too much of the product, this is weird. I mean, why would anyone behave that way, especially since there’s no way this could do anything but hurt the reputation of the company? Are we really to believe that someone a huge corporation would send out as an official representative to an event like this has never heard of conflict of interest, appearance of impropriety, um… sanity? I figured it had to be a mistake, an over-reaction, a fit of pique by a losing operation. Apparently not: I followed the link to the BII site and found this:
Following widespread reports of an incident at the BII Scotland Awards on 6th of May in Glasgow, when a sponsor intervened in the awarding of the bar operator prize, Peter Thomas, chief executive of BII, has released the following statement:

“This is a regrettable and isolated mistake. I am pleased that my colleagues acted quickly to address this situation. We have never had this sort of issue before and will be ensuring that this never happens again.

“It is crucial that awards of this kind are entirely independent, transparent and above question. Therefore, we will be reviewing exactly what happened, and we will ensure that our usual rigour and high standards will operate in the future. The judging process must be clear, straightforward and understood by all concerned.”
Whoa!!! This really happened, then? Apparently so, as here’s the statement on the Diageo website, too:
Diageo has provided the following statement in response to communications from independent brewer, BrewDog, in relation to the British Institute of Innkeeping Scottish Awards on Sunday 6 May 2012.

A Diageo spokesperson: “There was a serious misjudgement by Diageo staff at the awards dinner on Sunday evening in relation to the Bar Operator of the Year Award, which does not reflect in any way Diageo’s corporate values and behaviour.

We would like to apologise unreservedly to BrewDog and to the British Institute of Innkeeping for this error of judgement and we will be contacting both organisations imminently to express our regret for this unfortunate incident.”
Wow. Notice, of course, that they didn’t say anything about, you know, giving the award to its rightful recipient, or that those responsible would be terminated, reprimanded, or even identified.

Brewdog’s James seems to think the regret was more for getting busted than for the crass power play. Whether or not we might wish he’d kept to the high road in rebuttal, we can but admire the verbal skill of his takedown of the pomposity of the multi-gazillion dollar/pound/euro Goliath:
As for Diageo, once you cut through the glam veneer of pseudo corporate responsibility this incident shows them to be a band of dishonest hammerheads and dumb ass corporate freaks. No soul and no morals, with the integrity of a rabid dog and the style of a wart hog.
Ah, c’mon, James, don’t hold back. Tell us what you really feel! The result, of course, has been a lot more publicity for BrewDog than winning the award without incident would ever have provided, and possibly a new brew to commemorate the foolishness of Diageo: Scandale and Fail Ale are among the front-runners for names.

I like it. I’d love to be able to promise James and his compatriots that I’ll boycott Diageo, but that just isn’t going to happen. I’m heading to Ireland in a month’s time, and they control about every “local” beer there is there—Guinness, Smithwick’s, Kilkenny, Harp… The best I can do is promise to buy a pint of BrewDog at my first opportunity, and to seek out craft beers in general. But I do that, anyway…

OK, on to Jaguar. This one is, apparently, a trademark infringement case. I guess. Here’s the deal. Siblings Nick and Teresa Letchford bought a couple of stores in London’s Shoreditch area in 2001, back when that part of town hadn’t yet transformed from depressed working class area to the hipster haven it is today. Partially because of lack of money, partially because they rather liked the idea, they left the signs advertising the previous establishments in place, so their “collective”—a gallery/bar/café—became known as “Dream Bags Jaguar Shoes.”

The main entrance to the space was into the old Jaguar Shoes building, so that’s what the place came to be called. The enterprise became successful, attracting an artsy clientele and drop-bys from such celebrities as Natalie Portman, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Winehouse, Paloma Faith, and Beyonce. Anyway, in 2009 the Letchfords decided to protect their investment by copyrighting “Jaguar Shoes,” in a document that specifically points out “none of the aforesaid services relating to sports, vehicles, automobiles or the automotive industry.” Jaguar/Land Rover nonetheless have their collective skivvies in a twist.

We’ve been through this before. Some of you may remember when the Pillsbury people went apoplectic that a tiny bakery in Salt Lake City would have the audacity to use a World War II theme and call itself “My Dough Girl.” They won, of course, not because they had a case, but because the owner of the bakery didn’t have the resources—time or money—to fight them.

Here’s what I wrote at the time:
When we get right down to it, Pillsbury/General Mills is pursuing this course of action not because they have to to protect their trademark, but because they can. No sentient being could possibly confuse Pillsbury with My Dough Girl. The people at General Mills know that as well as anyone. But they just can’t help themselves. To a certain personality type, strutting around bullying the little guy is a show of manliness. To me, it’s a pretty sure sign that someone is compensating for something. [Insert vulgar anatomical reference here.] ….

Pillsbury, … even if they “win,” won’t have eliminated a real threat to their trademark; they’ll simply have created a shit-storm of negative publicity. Certainly if I were a General Mills stockholder, I’d be pretty upset that management is wasting money on lawyers and generating bad press to eliminate a phantom threat rather than—hell, I don’t know—developing new products, or improving employees’ job satisfaction, or (best of all) increasing my dividends.
But at least Pillsbury and My Dough Girl were sort of in the same business. No, no one is going to confuse the two operations, but they do both provide baked goods.

Jaguar/Land Rover’s objections are even more specious, more arrogant, more inane than Pillsbury’s were: and that is a very high hurdle, indeed. British copyright law is no doubt different than its American cousin, but the basic principal is the same. As explained by Catherine Wolfe, president of the Institute of Trade Mark Attorneys, the “basic test” is whether people are “confused.” Uh, no. No, they’re not. If Jaguar Shoes were actually a shoe store, some of the dimmer bulbs might think the auto-maker was branching out in a what-can’t-you-buy-on-Amazon sort of way. But this is a funky bar called Jaguar Shoes. You go there because it’s trendy, because you’ve heard good things from your friends, because it looks like fun. You don’t go because it has the same name… sort of… as a car company.

And what if you did? What if you decided to go in because it has the word “Jaguar” in its name, the same way I decided to try O’Brien’s pub on my first trip to Dublin because it had the same name as a favorite former student? What of it? First off, those associations are going to happen whatever the name. But more importantly, what does the automobile manufacturer lose in the process? Are we to believe that someone is going to storm out of Jaguar Shoes exclaiming, “Their prices are too high, and they water their drinks. Just for that, I’m buying a Beamer!”? Or maybe it works the other way—“I just love this little café. But I do spend a lot of money here. I should shop around more, maybe get a Mercedes this time.”

I’m guessing that neither of these scenaria will ever come to fruition, except perhaps as performance art (hey, they’ve got a great venue for that!). Writing about the My Dough Girl case, I said of General Mills (parent company of Pillsbury), “We can but hope that someday they'll accidentally pick on someone who can fight back.” It appears that Jaguar/Land Rover may have done just that. There’s a tone of defiance on the Jaguar Shoes website, not to mention the fact that they have all those famous (and wealthy) clients, who might just wield a little more clout in the court of public opinion than some blogger in East Texas does. The multi-national car-maker might just have bitten off more than it can chew. ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Ultimately, both these stories are about quotidian douchebaggery by giant corporations for no reason other than that, like Pillsbury, they can. It would be nice to see some big company somewhere at least have a rational reason for acting like jerks, or to… say… fire some dimwit who makes them look bad. Don’t hold your breath.

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