How many brands of olive oil can you name (apart from the ones produced as sidelines by Tuscan wine estates)? Can you remember the brand of balsamic vinegar in your kitchen cupboard? According to US research by Wine Intelligence, wine drinkers struggle to recall even a couple of wine brands. This is hardly surprising, given the limited – when compared to spirits, beers and soft drinks – marketing budgets commanded by most wine brands, and the high proportion of bottles that are picked up in haste while the consumer is rushing around a supermarket.
One retailer that is actively exploiting this weak level of brand recognition is J Sainsbury, Britain's second largest retail chain. At the beginning of this year, its wine department quietly introduced an own-label Chilean line called Camino del Angel whose labels bore more than a passing resemblance to Concha y Toro’s Casillero del Diablo, Britain's biggest selling Chilean brand. Concha y Toro were unamused by the devil-angel play on words, the less-than-accidental similarities between the products – and still less by the demotion of its wines from Sainsbury's shelves and onto its website.
Now Sainsbury’s has done it again, by launching a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc bearing a Villetta label which, as you may have guessed, could be charitably described as a 'homage' to Villa Maria. Presumably Sainsbury's design team is busily at work on a Prosecco label, and an Australian Shiraz. (Pinot Grigio will probably not be on their to-do list because no brand in the UK enjoys the kind of recognition Santa Margherita does in the US, for example.)
There is nothing new in retailers playing this kind of game. In 1997, A UK company called United Biscuits, makers of the best-selling Penguin chocolate snacks successfully stopped Asda – WalMart’s UK offshoot – from selling a similarly packaged product called 'Puffin'. That same year, AG Barr, producers of a popular Scottish soft drink called Irn Bru equally successfully issued a writ against the German discounter Lidl which had launched a lookalike drink called Iron Brew. A report in the Independent newspaper at the time described how a food manufacturers’ lobbying organisation called The British Brands Group had called for legislation against this kind of potentially misleading private labelling by retailers. Tesco Britain's biggest retailer was said to have “offered an olive branch to manufacturers by stating that it would take steps to differentiate its own label goods”, while Sainsbury was “believed to have taken a similar stance”.
But two decades is a long time in retailing, and some players in the UK and elsewhere cannot resist what they see as an open goal. How many of the Lidl's German customers realise that the Allini Piu Secco sparkling wine they buy for €1.79 is not actually from the same region as the same chain’s Prosecco which sells for a euro more. There is, however, a crucial difference between a German discounter almost solely focused on own-label products producing a knock-off version of an Italian DOC, and a British chain launching lookalike versions of commercial brands that are already on its shelves. The latter behaviour is a little like one of the US administrations’ recent bombing efforts: it sends a very clear message to its suppliers. We don’t need you. Play nicely with us, and we may allow you onto our website, and possibly, just possibly, in our stores. Play tough and you can look for other routes to market.