Drink to olde worlde values
I have desisted from writing this column for four days.
Before committing pen to paper, every morning, for four days, I have opened up the same news stories and read the same words again and again. Just to make sure that a) I hadn't imagined them, and that b) they really were as dof as I first reckoned them to be.
The words concern a small businessman, Mike Schmidt, who concocts unspeakable beverages at a factory in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. Hell will be colder than Scandinavia is right now before I actually drink any of the stuff Frankie's Olde World Soft Drink Company produces. Schmidt makes and distributes things like ginger beer (yuck), crème soda (perish the thought), root beer (bleghh) and even cinnamon cola (heaven forbid).
None of these appeals to me, but I concede there are many others who love nothing more than a drop of root beer (and woe betide any other third grader who, on a hot day, comes between my son and a cold crème soda). In other words, it might not be me, but there is a substantial market for Schmidt's concoctions. And, apparently, people like the fact that it is all too olde fashioned for ye wordes.
Schmidt has been in the news a great deal lately. Some of the coverage has shown pictures of him; a middle-aged, jovial enough looking fellow who wears short-sleeved button-up shirts to work, just like an Absa branch manager.
Schmidt took Woolworths to the Advertising Standards Authority, complaining that they'd nicked his old-fashioned pay-off line and the whole aura of ancient Irish crones stirring mead pots to make a delectable concoction that little Connor could take to nourish himself while working from daybreak to sunset cutting peat to keep the family hovel warm. Or whatever.
From the appellation "olde soft drink company" it seems it is but a mental hop, skip and a jump to the buxom 1950s-style slappers who adorn Frankie's marketing material.
Schmidt has invested a great deal of time, effort and money in creating a brand. And then Woolworths came along and purloined the essence of it. And so off he went to the ASA. And a million entrepreneurs and other little people applauded his pluck and revelled in his victory when the authority told Woolworths and their lawyers they were being disingenuous by arguing that the phrase "old-fashioned" had been around for so long it was fair game. I don't particularly like the sorts of soft drink Schmidt peddles and I have doubts about his short-sleeved shirts. But, like many others, I doff my cap to him for having the kahunas to stand up to a giant retailer on a matter of principle.
While it charges upper-class housewives obscene prices for stuff, most of which they could just as well get at Pick n Pay, Woolworths tries hard to maintain an image of its business supporting the little supplier. (I alluded to one such case just the other day: the story about KwaZulu-Natal berry farmers and, in truth, their old-fashioned soft drinks came from an SME supplier - now bulleted).
Woolworths projects itself as a sustainable, integrated business, but how can we believe a word they ever say again when we read the words I've been contemplating for four days. Here's CEO Ian Moir responding, in a statement, to the ASA's adverse ruling: "While we maintain we have not copied the Frankie's range, it is clear public sentiment is against us. Customer opinion is much more important to us than the right or wrong of this issue, and the trust of our customers is far more valuable."
I'm teaching my crème soda-loving third grader the intricacies of leg spin and every month spend a small fortune (at least a Woolies shopping basket's worth) on his Kumon maths. I hope one day he will become a wrist-spinning actuary, but I really want him to become an adult who values the difference between right and wrong. To my mind, that is much more important than what people think of him and whatever goods or services he might grow up to sell.
Yet it seems the CEO of a JSE-listed company is "much" more interested in sales than right or wrong. What, in God's great universe, is more important than right and wrong? What, I wonder, will the board of Woolworths Holdings make of such a foolish public utterance by their group chief executive?