David Airey is an independent graphic designer working with companies of all sizes since 2005.

What convicts can teach us about branding

The following post was written by guest author Mike Kammerling of London-based Tinder + Sparks.

Raw salmon fillet

In September 2009, Neil Stansfield of Northamptonshire was jailed for over two years for buying own-brand, non-organic supermarket food, repackaging it as well-sourced organic produce and selling it on at a huge markup to highly reputable food retailers.

On the one hand what he did was a shameful act of manipulation that undermined an already beleaguered organic market and the honest work of a lot of passionate food producers. On the other hand it was a hilarious example of how branding can increase the perceived value of a product.

For five years Stansfield and his staff of twelve were purchasing pork pies, smoked salmon and much more from the likes of Tesco and Aldi, stripping the outers, and re-wrapping them in their Swaddles Organic branded packaging. In doing so Stansfield not only made a name for himself as a highly regarded organic food supplier, but also managed to sell his products to discerning retailers like Fortnum and Mason, a coup of which he boasted to the local paper.

“Fortnum and Mason searched for the finest British classic pie throughout the UK and after arduous searching they came upon ONEfood and Swaddles, sampled the product and found it to be the best in the UK.”
— NEIL STANSFIELD

He called Swaddles’ parent company ONEfood — where the ONE stood for Organic, Natural and Ethical — and recorded annual sales of between £500,000 and £2.5 million.

Swaddles packaging design

Above are some examples of the packaging taken from the website of ONEfood’s design agency. The fact is, it’s good design and ticks all the boxes required of a mass distributor of organic produce. We have the wonky, cursive script, a colourful palette and some emotive photography. And above the main logo — like a cherry on the cake of bullshit — is the Soil Association logo, a stamp that certifies produce as organic.

After this controversy emerged, the design agency must have wondered whether to keep the designs on their portfolio. But why not? They did a fantastic job, demonstrated by the huge success of the Swaddles Organic range.

Swaddles packaging design

The fact is, if anyone was going to enact a mass swindle in food packaging, Neil Stansfield knew exactly how: by spending money in the right place to ensure that the packaging gets in front of the right audience, and is trusted when it does.

As any branding consultant or designer worth their salt knows, the perceived value of a product is what makes it sell. As David himself mentions in Logo Design Love, the Skoda is consistently voted ‘Car of the Year,’ delivering excellent mileage and value for money at a fraction of the cost of, say, an Aston Martin. And yet people are willing to pay well over the odds for an Aston Martin; for the prestige, literally for the ‘badge value.’

Aston Martin badge
Photo credit: carpictures1.com

But packaging can have an even more profound effect than just making us believe we are paying the right price for a product. In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell reports a fascinating case about 7UP. In the 90s the company changed the can design very marginally, adding more yellow onto their label. This proved to be a bad move. People were up in arms, claiming that the company had made 7up more “lemony” despite the fact that the drink inside hadn’t changed at all. People wrote in to complain that 7UP had done a “new Coke.” There are countless examples of this kind of activity showing that a label affects not only the price people are willing to pay for a product, but can also psychologically impact upon the taste.

Perhaps this is how, once upon a time, Fortnum and Masons came to believe a Tesco pork pie to be “…the best in the UK.”

In the end Neil Stansfield was arrested when, following a tip off, the Food Standards Agency bought a salmon from Swaddles (at £51) and discovered it to be neither wild nor organic as it claimed on the label but in fact bought from Waitrose the previous day (at £20). He was sent down for 27 months and his wife and business partner were given compulsory community service for their part in the scam.

What they did was terrible, dishonest and wonderfully entertaining. But what it teaches us is the incomparable value of good branding and design.

About the author: Mike Kammerling is creative director at London-based Tinder + Sparks. You can read his blog here, and follow him on Twitter here.

Reported in The Telegraph (2009): Organic food company guilty of selling non-organic food.

Salmon photo credit: Thinkstock

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18 comments about “What convicts can teach us about branding”

  1. This is actually pretty hilarious, just goes to show that someone with a decent amount of marketing gusto and relatively appealing design can fool people.

  2. I certainly don’t condone his actions but its still very clever. Maybe its a matter of the laws being different (I’m in NYC) but I don’t understand which of his actions is considered a punishable crime.

    Coca Cola sells Dasani which is really just filtered water but people still flock to buy what they can basically get from their tap. There are many high-end restaurants and hotels that do little more than reheat and apply a hefty markup to bread and other food items purchased from other companies.

    The 7Up example is very on point. Last year around the holidays there was a similar hubbub about Coca Cola’s silver holiday cans. I was given one on a plane and I kept checking the can because every sip seemed to taste more and more like Diet Coke. That was the worst can of Coca Cola that I’ve ever had.

  3. The guy’s a genius, more of a con man than criminal…

  4. This is unbelievable. A lot of good points in that article and I never knew about the 7Up rebrand disaster. It just goes to show a consumer psychologically is not to be tampered with. I agree with Stuart though, very con man-like.

  5. @Natasha I think the biggest thing is that it’s fraud. If I sell something but make no claims, there’s no problem. But if I sell something that’s not organic, and I claim it’s organic, then that’s fraud. It’s intentional deception. If you only buy organic (for whatever reason), and you believe that something is organic, but it isn’t, you’ve just spent money on a product you wouldn’t otherwise have.

    The difference with the water is that Coca Cola (probably, I’m not sure) doesn’t sell it as “spring water” or similar. Also, Wikipedia tells me it’s not exactly the same as tap water, as it’s had some processing done to it. I guess the same would apply to restaurants and hotels selling other food items. Unless they claim it was made ‘in-house’ or similar (or it is strongly implied), then there probably isn’t any fraud happening.

    As with the difference between ‘conman’ and ‘criminal’, aren’t conmen criminals?
    (IANAL, IANYL, etc.)

    It is pretty funny, but still fraud.

  6. @Michael I understand that it’s fraud and extremely dishonest. I’m just surprised that there’s an enforceable law that went beyond a fine and actually resulted in jail time.

    Dasani might have never blatantly said that it was natural “spring water” but it has been implied through terms like “pure”, “eco-living”, etc. This was the main cause of the PR problems that occurred when the product was launched in Europe. According to Wikipedia, in the US Coca Cola uses local municipal water sources, filters the water, and adds small amount of minerals. The water that comes out of your tap is already treated, if you were to run it through a filter you’d pretty much have Dasani. The only difference would be that you didn’t have to pay for packaging and marketing. In most cases, perception is the only thing separating commodity and branded products.

  7. Holding up a criminal as an example to follow is wrong. Design already has a bad name, how often do you read a good article in the press when it comes to the design, it’s always ‘how much it costs’ or how something failed when it was redesigned (like Tropicana).

    Dasani failed in the UK when people realised what it was, the same with Sunny D when it was marketed as healthy fruit juice (they forgot to tell people you could fry vegetables in it).

    We need more ethics in our industry. Design should be based on truth. Not lies or downright fraud as in this case.

    If this case teaches us anything, it’s not that branding and design can tell lies and make you money, it’s that telling lies means years of worrying about picking up the soap in the shower.

  8. In addition to Lee’s comment above, Tim Sullivan (who subscribes via email) sent me the following message in response to this post (he was happy for me to publish it in the comment thread):

    (Quoting the post:)

    “The fact is, if you are going to enact a mass swindle in food packaging, Neil Stansfield did it properly”

    I encourage you to re-think the wisdom of suggesting that there is a proper way to engage in mass swindling. Deceiving and cheating people is never to be encouraged, even through tongue-in-cheek admiration of their tactics. Based on the information in your post, what Mr. Stansfield did serves to undermine consumer confidence in organic certification and labeling. I personally know people who are already reluctant to buy organic food for fear that its certification has been falsified. Mr. Stansfileld’s actions will only intensify their concerns.

    If you find the packaging design worthy kudos, fine. But please do not bestow veiled praise upon a criminal act that undermines the credibility of an industry working hard to create a healthy, sustainable planet.

    It’s a good point, so I edited the post to remove a word of admiration as well as any phrase that might inadvertently show Neil Stansfield as an example to follow (which of course he certainly isn’t, and I’m sure Mike agrees).

  9. I do indeed agree, thanks David, God forbid anyone should follow in Neil Stansfield’s footsteps.

    But @Tim and @Lee, I think it’s possible to condemn the act while admitting that his focus while committing it was a great example of what we as designers sometimes spend too much time convincing clients – the value of branding. Of course we would choose to work on products that add value to people’s lives, ones where the packaging supports an honest message, but to ignore the lessons of this case would be a shame. Phone companies often employ whole teams of people to go to those countries where the hardware knowledge gets stolen, hacked and rebuilt to discover what they have added to make the phones even better.

    I admit that this article is written a little tongue in cheek. Would I hope that another Neil Stansfield comes along? Absolutely not, as I hope I’ve made clear, what he did was shameful, and undermining, but I don’t think criminality means we can’t learn valuable lessons from his example.

  10. Am I the only person who’s read this article who’s left thinking that perhaps the “discerning” food retailers aren’t quite so discerning after all?

    Reminds me of all the snobbery that existed towards wines from the New World that existed about 30 years ago – until an established panel of “expert” wine tasters did a blind test session and found that they preferred them to wines from the traditional sources.

  11. Hi Mike, I know where you are coming from, my problem is that we seem to be celebrating when branding is a veneer of untruth rather than a force for communicating the true virtues of the product.

    The former not only undermines the brand, it undermines the whole design industry. I’d rather be working in a profession that was responsible for Innocent or Fairtrade rather than Dasani or Swaddles.

  12. wonderfully entertaining?

    that’s the only part of this that confuses me. I may be entertained (wouldn’t use that word), but really very little about this calls the word “wonderful” to mind. Fascinating, horrifying, infuriating, intriguing…yeah – all of those. I work very hard for my modest self-employed-designer income. I buy organic whenever I can, and if there’s even one person like this asshole putting a single dollar of my income in his pocket, I’d be angry to hear about it. I definitely wouldn’t call it wonderful.

    Regardless – it’s a fascinating post, David – as usual, and it definitely makes a relevant point that can often times be all too difficult to communicate to our clients.

  13. @Lee Absolutely agreed, those are the clients we should aim for and do our best with the clients we have to steer them in that direction too, as we have a responsibility not only as designers but as agitators. I guess we can draw solace from the fact that Swaddles is long gone and Dasani is now defunct whereas Innocent and Fairtrade are doing rather well in their fields.

    @Bryan, Okay I confess I’m a little bit too amused by the cajones of this guy, it’s true. I’m glad you see it as entertaining but maybe not wonderfully so. Would you be more comfortable with horribly entertaining?

  14. Just a quick note to thank you again for guest authoring, Mike.

    Jon, that reminds me of when Gordon Ramsay surprised Sir Cliff Richard with a blind wine taste, comparing celebrity wines with cheap brands. Unknowingly, Cliff said when comparing his own wine with another, “I wouldn’t buy them. Well, if they were in Tesco for £2.50 I might and I’d only invite people I didn’t like round.” (His wine costs £8 a bottle.)

    Here’s the video clip (Cliff’s wine is in round three at the 3:10 mark).

  15. @Mike. Your post is fascinating, to the say the least…and it’s an excellent reference to cite when discussing the importance of what we do. Reading it back, my comment seems a bit heavy. Perhaps I skipped lunch. Horribly entertaining will do just fine. :)

    Thanks for “entertaining” me.

  16. It goes to show you that you can’t always judge a book by it’s cover. It makes me wonder if everything is an illusion.

  17. As a former advertising student I know our opinions of brands are based on design and adverts and find it scary the blind trust we give to our brands, however, what’s even more scary is the need to checkup on what our brand are saying is true.

    When our parents went shopping they looked at prices now we need to study the company in detail and continuously to ensure they uphold our values (and the ones they claim).

    It’s hard work shopping these days.

  18. Branding is everything! Some may say you can’t tell a book by its cover and some may argue they can. The truth here is it is all about the impression.

    How many times have you tipped a waiter when the food was bad because the service was great? Same Story Applies here.

    The value of most products depends on the package it comes in. Branding is EVERYTHING!

Anything to add?

Comments may be edited or deleted if I don't like the cut of your jib, but that's quite unlikely.