Tesco effect: How big firms quietly own little brands

 
Clockwise from left, smoothie, coffee, ice cream, granola, tea

There's been negative coverage over a new "family" coffee chain that is actually backed by Tesco. Why do people become vexed?

With its exposed brickwork, muted lighting and expensive decor, Harris and Hoole is the epitome of a modern, upmarket coffee shop of the kind that has colonised the UK's High Streets in recent years.

The one sound you won't hear amid the tinkle of ceramic cups and relaxed chat, is a tannoy announcement saying "clean-up in aisle seven".

Yet Harris and Hoole would not be expanding quite as rapidly as it is without the financial backing of supermarket giant Tesco.

Tesco's stake has been reported at 49%, but the coffee chain will only say it is "up to 49%". Not that you would know this from a visit to one of its 10 outlets or the company's website, where Tesco barely merits a mention.

The Guardian reported on the supermarket's stake last year and this week Mail Online featured it prominently, although many readers left comments in support of Tesco and the chain.

Uxbridge branch Harris and Hoole in Uxbridge

There's been some ill feeling on social media. One alienated customer tweeted: "Appalled to discover seemingly independent #Harris+Hoole coffee shop @N8CrouchEnd 49% owned by #Tesco. Never go again". Another questioned Tesco's record on paying tax and tweeted: "#Harris + Hoole will be added to my boycott list."

It is not hard to see why Tesco would want to get into coffee shops - they are among the few growth areas in a bleak retail landscape.

Fitting the indie template

Five doors down from Harris and Hoole in Crouch End, north London, is a Tesco. Neither makes reference to the other in store.

With its expensive light fittings, exposed brickwork and red velvet cakes, it fits the current indie cafe template to a T. The customers tote sleek laptops, sleek buggies, or both. Coffees come in artfully mismatched cups. Tea brews in retro-chic pots topped with egg-timers filled with coloured sand.

Unlike the uniformed staff at the next-door Starbucks, those behind the counter are in mufti - mainly stripy T-shirts for the women and skinny cardigans for the men. And they're friendly. Very friendly. "Love your frames!" says one to a spectacle-wearing customer.

Sipping a takeaway flat white, Michael, a civil servant, says he's a regular at the Southgate branch near his office. "There's not much competition there except Costa and Starbucks - nah."

Despite mistaking Harris and Hoole for an independent mini-chain, Michael says he's not put off by Tesco's involvement. "It's well-made coffee, good prices and the people are friendly."

And Tesco is not the first multinational to buy into a self-consciously cool, quirky and independent-sounding brand.

"Large global brands realise there is a generic dislike of super brands, so they often like to appear smaller than they are to avoid negative publicity," says Stuart Roper, a corporate reputation expert at Manchester Business School.

Ben and Jerry's ice cream (Unilever), Innocent Smoothies (Coca Cola), Green and Black's chocolate (Cadbury/Kraft) and Copella apple juice (Tropicana/Pepsi) are among the many formerly independent brands now owned by large corporations.

But what seems to have irked anti-corporate coffee lovers about Harris and Hoole is that Tesco has not bought into an existing brand, but is instead attempting to build one from scratch.

"Our main objection is that they are masquerading as a little, independent shop. They are a wolf in sheep's clothing," says Brian Hitcham, of Save Whitstable Shops. Hitcham has campaigned to stop a Harris and Hoole opening in his town.

Hitcham, an antiquarian bookseller, fears the arrival of Harris and Hoole and other chains will damage the character of the Kent seaside town and force genuine independents out of business by driving up rents.

The new coffee chain is treading carefully.

Its Australian founder, Nick Tolley, met Hitcham and other campaigners in December in an attempt to convince them he is not out to destroy their town.

"Our priority is to get the Whitstable shop right and the process may take time but we'll keep the local community informed as the project continues," he says.

Anti Harris + Hoole poster from Save Whitstable Shops campaigns Poster from Save Whitstable Shops campaign

Tesco, for its part, says it has never hidden its involvement with Harris and Hoole. It has taken a non-controlling stake in a string of businesses in recent years, from a garden centre to an online streaming service.

"Tesco invests to help build brands where we believe we can add value," says a spokesman.

This, argue entrepreneurs, is the crucial point that anti-corporate campaigners always overlook.

Banks are reluctant to lend money to start-ups unless they are already making a profit, so if you want to expand your business, getting into bed with a multinational is often the only game in town.

Teapigs, a high-end tea manufacturer, is another company that has come under fire for allegedly hiding its corporate roots.

Its website, with pictures of the office dog Harvey and tales of founders Nick and Louise's passion for "real tea", ticks all the cute and quirky boxes.

It's not easy to spot any mention of Teapigs being a subsidiary of Tetley which in turn is owned by giant Indian industrial conglomerate Tata.

There has been a predictable backlash from bloggers.

Who are Harris and Hoole?

Coffee house, 1660s

Design company SomeOne named the chain after two coffee-loving characters in Samuel Pepys' diary.

On 3 February 1664, Pepys wrote of popping into a Covent Garden coffee house of the type pictured above.

"I stopped at the great coffee-house there, where I never was before; where Dryden the poet (I knew at Cambridge), and all the wits of the town, and Harris the player, and Mr Hoole of our College. And had I had time then, or could at ether times, it will be good coming thither, for there, I perceive, is very witty and pleasant discourse."

The Foodie Gift Hunter says she felt "miffed" and "duped" by Teapigs.

"To me, you can set a business up any way you like. You can be owned by who you like. Just don't expect us not to be disappointed when you turn out to be something different to how you portray yourselves," she wrote, adding that she would no longer be purchasing their teabags.

Digital consultant Alex Balfour says his wife was similarly disappointed.

"Upset wife by telling her Teapigs is effectively Tetley spin off - ex-tetley execs, 100% owned by Tata which owns Tetley. That's marketing," he tweeted.

But self-styled "tea evangelist" Nick Kilby, who started Teapigs in 2006, thinks the criticism is unfair.

"If people were in our shoes they would probably have done the same thing. If they had actually been through what we went through they wouldn't be making these sort of comments. They are very ill-advised."

If the company had received financial backing from a bank, then it would not have come under pressure to reveal the name of the financial institution on its website, he argues.

The firm operates as a separate business, with no interference from Tetley, he says.

"That sort of criticism is never going to go away. Some people are always going to think 'big is evil' and yes it is in some cases but in many other cases it isn't. We all rely on big companies and big institutions."

Ben and Jerry of Ben and Jerry's ice cream Ben and Jerry started in a Vermont garage, and sold to Unilever in 2000

Brian Millar, director of strategy at branding agency Sense Worldwide, says corporations have had a crash course in how not to trample over the family firms they buy into.

"Multinationals are getting smarter at working with these small brands without ruining their authenticity.

Independent coffee republic of Totnes

Clonestoppers poster of anti-Costa campaign

Totnes is not exactly typical of a small British town. It has long hosted incomers attracted by its eco-friendly and New Age reputation.

In this settlement of fewer than 8,000 souls, there are 41 different places to buy a coffee.

Yet plans to open just one more coffee outlet have provoked fury. The latest addition will be a branch of Costa - the first coffee chain to breach the citadel of a community fiercely proud of its independently owned outlets.

There is something about coffee that puts it at the vanguard of protest movements. Naomi Klein's anti-corporate bible No Logo was harshly critical of Starbucks conduct in particular.

"The key is often to keep the founder in the business and not have them waltz off to the beach, while the brand they have lavished so much care on becomes just another name in a big house of brands."

Entrepreneur Harry Cragoe, who invented PJ's smoothies in 1994, knows all about this.

He sold out to Pepsico in 2005 and watched with mounting horror as the product to which he had dedicated his life was rebranded, repriced and, within 18 months, ditched altogether.

"It was mortifying," he recalls.

It had always been his intention to sell the firm - that is often the only way an entrepreneur can reap the financial rewards of their years of effort.

But if a key part of your business strategy is being "open, honest and transparent" or "ethical" then it puts you in a difficult position, he says.

He decided to walk away from the business after the Pepsico deal ("I have got nothing against multinationals. It is just wasn't something I wanted to be involved in") heading for the beaches, not of the Caribbean, but Camber Sands, where he has set-up a luxury hotel.

His main competitor, Innocent, sold a 58% stake to Coca-Cola, but the firm's founders retained day-to-day control of the business, building it into Europe's leading smoothie brand.

The UK's coffee love affair

  • Coffee shop market grew by 7.5% in 2012, with £5.8bn in turnover
  • 15,723 branded, independent and non-specialist coffee shops, such as supermarket cafes
  • One in five people now visit coffee shops on a daily basis compared with one in nine in 2009
  • They drink on average three cups of coffee shop coffee a week
  • Three biggest chains are Costa (1,552 outlets), Starbucks (757) and Caffe Nero (530)

Source: Allegra Strategies

Consumer surveys suggest people think less of a brand when they discover it is owned by a multinational - but that does not mean they stop buying it.

People love products that look and feel authentic.

Only a small percentage will take the trouble to find out whether they really are - and an even smaller number will be so outraged by what they find that they will boycott it.

"It's hard to tell how long the reputational damage lasts," says Stuart Roper.

It's very much a minority of customers that inconvenience themselves to change brands. Significantly less than 10%."

Additional reporting by Megan Lane

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  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 460.

    450. spam x4 "If I want/need a coffee, my main choice is the nearest one to me"

    If I want a coffee and I am at home, I would go to the kitchen and make one.
    If at work, I would either a) go to the staff kitchen and make one, or b) go to the staff restaurant and buy one.
    If I am out and want coffee, I wonder why I did not have one before leaving and wait till I get back to work/home then as above

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 459.

    Please.....for anyone to be so naive is just laughable.

    Very few companies with more than one store are owned by a single entity or individual.

    The nature of doing big business means that you have to have financial backers, those backers will do business via companies of there own, multiple off-shoots of the same brand will held by an overall "holding" company. That's how business is done now!

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 458.

    Buy a Gaggia and make your own coffee. Very satisfying.
    Oops! a slight problem that may annoy some people.... Gaggia is now owned by Philips.

    Just choose an outlet where you enjoy the cofee, sit back and chill.

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 457.

    Answer to tc, rhetorical question at post 440:
    Can't a British youngster use a coffee machine?
    No.
    So it's more or less impossible to get a decent cup of coffee in Britain. Mind you. it's more or less impossible to get one in France, too.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 456.

    431.TechSing
    "If you really want to stop big business domination, you need to wake up and demand fundamental change. But instead you'll go back to your coffee."

    Best post yet. Unfortunately there are a lot of lazy/stupid/scared people that simply accept the status quo and to hell with where that takes us all.

    Just need to keep educating people to THINK. Give it time.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 455.

    Every Little Hurts...
    They have the Worst Management of All time...
    You Work Like a Dog all Year Round... You Get treated Like Dog..
    i hate their ..Radio Announcements In-Shop While Shopping In-Store...and it goes like this..
    "This is Amber Call"
    "This is Red Call" Roughly About 5 times in a Space of an Hour..
    Poor Management For Crying Out Loud..People Not Profits..

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 454.

    @366 '
    Learn before you post: the FOI applies to publicly accountable bodies - not the Jack Cohen tat that many of you seem so concerned about.

    People should spend their money in places that they approve of. If for whatever reason they don't like the "trader", then they should use their feet and buy elsewhere. No one is forced to shop at "such & such" - unless you're brainwashed or a poseur!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 453.

    Another reputable company gone into administration.. Jessops.. you could get good advice from the staff in those shops by staff who knew what they were talking about...can you get that in any supermarket ?

  • rate this
    +29

    Comment number 452.

    It's all about the scale and where the wealth ends up. The family who own the small shop or restaurant down the street probably earn a good living from their business, but are unlikely to be raking in the millions year on year. A chain owned by a multinational probably has a small overpaid management team and rich shareholders who ultimately derive most of the profit/benefit.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 451.

    440.tc

    Possibly it's down to experience (yes, it's only a coffee machine) and the attitude of the applicant. I'd always employ the most capable person and the person I think will do the best job. If that happened to be someone who immigrated here every time, then I see no problem.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 450.

    If I want/need a coffee, my main choice is the nearest one to me.


    The thing with this anti-corporate behaviour is that it is largely hypercritical.

    Yes big business has not got a good reputation but reality is, is that AVERAGE smaller businesses are MUCH more likely to source goods/products from MUCH worse sources, low paid eco damaging etc, as their spending power is limited/restricted.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 449.

    Wow, the naivete of people is astounding Do you real think in this bank and corporation ruled country (western civilization) that any business with more than a single branch could actually survive without getting into bed with big banks or big business. If you really want to stop big business domination, you need to wake up and demand fundamental change. But instead you'll go back to your coffee.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 448.

    Isn't Starbucks the tax dodger part owned by McDonalds ?

    Both "lovely" companies, aren't they ?

  • rate this
    +8

    Comment number 447.

    And don't forget Tesco's own substantial tax avoidance schemes, as documented in Private Eye for instance, but strangely hardly ever mentioned in the mainstream press (or by the BBC).....

  • rate this
    +49

    Comment number 446.

    I would just like to be able to choose whether I support local, independent enterprise or large corporations. I can't do that if it's not clear who owns what. I can understand people feeling misled by this.

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 445.

    When does coffee cease to become just coffee?

    When it becomes a social statement in the same way that fermented grape juice is branded in such a way as to appeal to elitist sentiments.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 444.

    The simple fact is this company decided to go from being a sole trader business and become a shared business - if another company such as Tesco invests in them then good for them! If they ddo good business they'll stay in business.... At the end of the day you're paying for products and services if you don't like what you're getting then go elsewhere! don't hate just because Tesco is involved....!

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 443.

    In the nearest (small) town to my home, there are two supermarkets.
    Morrisons: smells bad, looks seedy, and I would not put anything bought there anywhwere near my mouth.
    Asda: clean but with a limited range of products for my needs.

    So, I travel a little further afield and shop at Tesco, which sells what I want to buy at a reasonable price in reasonable conditions.
    I am coeliac and pescetarian.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 442.

    I dont think its a case of bashing supermarkets...do we all really want to live in cloned towns ?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 441.

    so some people started up a company. tesco then gave them some money to help get the business going. tesco then got (lets say) 49% of the company. Let's make this clear. TESCO DO NOT OWN THIS COMPANY. 49% of the profit will go to tesco, yes. that's the nature of investing. however all decisions will be made by the original owners who have the controlling interest.

 

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