What the duffin tells us about the power of the PR machine

There are precious few options left to tiny fish left in a sea of trademarking sharks.

Societies have always had to work out ways to reward and protect originality. The Ancient Greeks in the Sicilian colony of Syracuse used to give sole rights for a year to any professional cook in a tavern who developed a new recipe, thus creating a system where everyone knew whose recipe it was by the time anyone else could use it.

Any dessert fanatic can tell you that Peach Melba was invented by Escoffier in honour of the soprano Nellie Melba. Mention the phrase ‘Chocolate Nemesis’ and a guaranteed slew of middle-aged, middle class, middle England will shout, “River Cafe!” faster than two winning ladies can shout‘bingo’ on a Friday night in the Saltcoats Mecca.

In the past few weeks, the giant coffee chain Starbucks has got in on the act and announced that after ‘extensive research’ in their bakeries, their chefs had come up with a new, completely original hybrid of a muffin and a doughnut, filled it with jam and called it a duffin. Desperate to be known for more than just bland coffee and a flagrant disregard for tax, it seemed that the company had struck marketing gold. After all, everybody with a sweet tooth remembers the craze surrounding the cronut creation in New York by Dominique Ansel, as well as the resultant queues out the door of the store. Starbucks’ factory supplier, Rich Products, a $3bn a year global food corporation who supply Starbucks (when the marketing people at Starbucks say "our chefs", this is the company that they are realistically talking about), have trademarked the name ‘Duffins’ in the UK, meaning that no other company, large or small, can sell baked doughnuts under the name of duffins due to the risk of heavy fines.

There is one spanner in the works of such originality and such a marketing dream. A small bakery in London with four shops, Bea’s of Bloomsbury, has been selling duffins for more than two years. In fact, even when Bea’s started selling them, the idea wasn’t particularly new – a number of small bakeries do baked doughnuts and they have appeared in a number of recipe books throughout the years, not least Bea's 2011 book "Tea with Bea". It was Bea’s customer base at the store near St Paul's Cathedral who christened the creations duffins – the term that intuitively came to mind when referring to a hybrid of a muffin and a doughnut - and the name stuck.

It never occurred to Bea Vo, owner of Bea's of Bloombury, to trademark duffin as it was her customers' who created the name. She made her position clear on Twitter: "I don't believe that dessert names should be trademarked, and so I didn't [trademark it]... but now it seems that Starbucks could legally make us stop selling our own creation." She went on to explain that she had been advised that a legal challenge to the trademark would cost a minimum of £5,000. Small change if you are as big as Starbucks, but a massive amount that a small business like hers just doesn't have to spare.

Starbucks have since claimed to have done a full online investigation proving that no one was using the name duffin anywhere (worringly, it seems that both their researchers and the Intellectual Property Office are incapable of doing a basic search engine trawl for a word, as "duffins" appears from articles in places like the London Evening Standard from well over a year ago which are fully accessible from Google.) The coffee chain has also advised Bea that they will not stop her selling duffins, a promise that Bea's supporters fear will last as long as the publicity. Bea wants them to drop the trademark altogether. "The point of a trademark," says Bea, "is to stop other people from using it. So if you aren't going to, why have a trademark?" Quite.

The trademarking of food and drink names and the issues around it has reared its head a few times of late, most memorably when an English-owned restaurant chain trademarked the name of Vietnam’s national dish (‘pho’). They recently threatened the owners of the Vietnamese restaurant "Mo Pho" but backed down in the face of the resulting PR disaster. Additionally, the tiny Norfolk-based brewery Redwell received a cease and desist letter from Red Bull, with the 'brand enforcement manager' (yes, really) stating that Red Bull have a trademark on "Red", and considering that "well" used the same last two letters as "Bull", there was a realistic danger that the existence of Redwell beer would dilute the Red Bull brand. The brand enforcement manager's fear was that us poor customers would get confused between them and buy a craft beer instead of a highly caffeinated drink.

Ale lovers across the UK begged their local small breweries to create beer named "Red Bullies" in response, and an extensive online campaign has meant that Redwell and Red Bull have reached an ‘amicable agreement’. I'd hazard a guess that the brand enforcement manager and the public relations manager of Red Bull had a rather intense meeting as a result – but this is, of course, conjecture.

Behind our backs, a small group of large and wealthy companies are trademarking more and more words in the name of "brand protection." Whether it is a primary colour, someone else's national dish or someone else's dessert, things that are, or are about to be, common parlance are trademarked and codified. They are turned into something an organisation can make exclusive to them for the money.

For the concerned citizen, or the affected small business owner, the only option is to rally the online troops and create a stink as the one thing a large company fears more than not having a trademark is public relations gone awry. Luckily for us, in the social media age this can be relatively simple.

However, once the bad publicity has died down and the PR machine is back on track, there are precious few options left to tiny fish left in a sea of trademarking sharks. We shouldn’t be too quick to forget the duffin.

Cronuts: the hybrid precursor to duffins. Image: Getty
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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad