Written by Mike Kammerling of Tinder + Sparks, about Neil Stansfield who was jailed for more than two years for buying own-brand supermarket food, repackaging it as organic produce, and selling it on at a huge markup.

Raw salmon filletPhoto via Thinkstock.

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 badgePhoto 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.

Mike Kammerling is creative director at London-based Tinder + Sparks.

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