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

    Comment number 800.

    I see why you're called Dicky. God forbid people deem to care about anything. At all. What are you doing here again?

  • rate this

    Comment number 799.

    translated audio recordings from "le cafe shop" reveal the usage of common phrases in the native tongue of the species, including : the killing, school league table, guardian , saffron, samphire, great british bake off, john lewis, downton, life of pi

  • rate this

    Comment number 798.

    Capitalism should work for all of us.

    I don't understand how most of us don't have a much better life than a Fred Flintstone. Advances in technology have made the world a much richer place.
    Somehow all the money just ends up hoarded by a few who compound the issue by disliking poor people because they haven't got any money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 797.

    carbon footprint (and life expectancy) is also improved by moving from bikes to public transport, and from frappacino latte to water

  • rate this

    Comment number 796.

    If you drink real ale brewed by completely independent micro-breweries this is not an issue. Also, being produced and delivered locally lowers it's carbon footprint.

  • rate this

    Comment number 795.

    I hope the staff are of a better calibre than the ones that run their cafes in-store. They are rude, unhelpful, usually overweight and just generally awful with a couldn't-care-less attitude. Their cafes have an awful choice of food as well. I stopped using them as they were that bad. They need to employ enough good staff to ensure the customer gets good service. That is so important.

  • rate this

    Comment number 794.

    Amongst the chairs & tables of this cramped vista known as “le café shop” this species assemble during daylight, in assorted finery of fair isle, pashmina, velvet, and cord. Learned anthropologists tell us this species think they are communicating with the outside world, but in reality are talking loudly only to themselves. Containers of a pale brown liquid are often pressed to their orifices

  • rate this

    Comment number 793.

    Here's an interview with the owner of a real independent coffee shop in Sheffield - http://vimeo.com/47580096. The stuff his trained baristas produce is far superior to any I ever tasted in a coffee chain!

  • rate this

    Comment number 792.

    Sawboman, go to Tesco, they now offer startup money with no strings attached. They show you how to takeover small business, reap massive profits & syphon these offshore to make even bigger profits. They'll explain how to hide this from your loyal fans by saying you are all about keeping things local community. All for a lowly half of your soul. Banks can't offer this. They just give out money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 791.

    Both multinational & independent can live together but the former shouldn`t masquerade as the latter. The growth of the multinational coffee shops has actually forced some independents to up their game. Ten yrs ago or so before multinationals moved into my local High Street the independent coffee shops were appalling - instant coffee, plastic chairs, dirty toilets &awful service. Not any more!

  • rate this

    Comment number 790.

    At least Tesco pay their taxes...

  • rate this

    Comment number 789.

    Is a shop sponsored by a bank, who put up the finance but front it by ma and pa better? Is a franchise where the bank holds the debt and most of the income goes to the license holder better? Why is it so wrong when funded with money and management guidance by a skilled operator?
    Please can one of you complainers tell me how to apply to the 'Freelunch Company' so I can start up a business?

  • rate this

    Comment number 788.

    They are such greedy b.......

  • rate this

    Comment number 787.

    We are to blame for generic high streets. If they all look the same, that means we must go to the same places.

    -----Courtesy of this Government most high streets look the same
    Boarded up shops, pound lands, charity shops, bookies and overpriced money lenders.

  • rate this

    Comment number 786.

    In the global scheme of things you need big companies as they can expand into foreign markets and bring wealth into the UK. The high street is full of foreign companies anyway, at least this one is British!

  • rate this

    Comment number 785.

    this only matters to the irrelevant and self important carrot gnawing chattering classes (several of the species are exhibited in their blustering finery on this topic)

  • rate this

    Comment number 784.

    When I first arrived in London I was shocked to see the same high street blandness in every borough. I just couldn't believe it. I come from Melbourne where Starbucks etc couldn't get a foot in as there are so many good other locals & people naturally resist the chain-style Americanisation. Same with all the places I've been in Europe too. Why is starting a chain here such a sign of success?

  • rate this

    Comment number 783.

    Perhaps we should nationalise Tesco and all the other supermarkets and allocate free groceries through an increase in our taxes. The service would undoubtedly be worse, costs would increase due to poor management and the burden of yet more public service pensions. However we would have removed a great evil from the UK ........

  • rate this

    Comment number 782.

    The only brand I always avoid is Nestle due to their appalling record of baby milk sales in 3rd world countries. I NEVER, EVER knowingly buy or eat Nestle products and I direct people to this site - http://info.babymilkaction.org/nestlefree

  • rate this

    Comment number 781.

    £5.8 billion turnover! The nation is innumerate, buy a Thermos and make your own.


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