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
Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Nigel Farage and Douglas Carswell don’t need to stand again as MPs – they’ve already won

I just loathe these people. I want to see them humiliated. 

We’re a week in to the campaign, and it’s clear that the 2017 election is going to be hell on toast. The polls show the Tories beating Labour in Scotland (for the first time in a generation) and Wales (for the first time in a century). The bookies put the chances of a Labour majority at around 20/1, odds that are striking mainly because they contain just one zero.

The only element of suspense in this election is whether Theresa May will win a big enough majority to keep Labour out of power for a decade, or one big enough to keep it out for an entire generation. In sum: if you’re on the left, this election will be awful.

But there was one bright spot, a deep well of Schadenfreude that I thought might get us through: the campaign would provide plentiful opportunities to watch the people who got us into this mess be humiliatingly rejected by the electorate yet again.

After all, Ukip’s polling numbers have halved since last summer and the party has fallen back into fourth place, behind the pro-European Lib Dems. Nigel Farage has failed to become an MP seven times. It thus seemed inevitable both that Farage would stand, and that he would lose. Again.

If the vexingly popular Farage has never made it to parliament, the odds that his replacement as Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall (the Walter Mitty of Bootle), would manage it seemed minimal. Ukip may have won last year’s referendum; that did not mean its leaders wouldn’t still lose elections, preferably in the most embarrassing way possible.

The true highlight of the election, though, promised to be Clacton. The Essex seaside town is the only constituency ever to have returned a Ukip candidate at a general election, opting to let the Tory defector Douglas Carswell stay on in 2015. But Carswell’s libertarian belief that Brexit was definitely not about immigration always seemed an odd fit with Ukip, and he left the party in March. In the upcoming election, he seemed certain to face a challenge from the party’s immigration-obsessed donor Arron Banks.

The Clacton election, in other words, was expected to serve as a pleasing metaphor for Ukip’s descent back into irrelevance. The libertarians and nativists would rip chunks out of each other for a few weeks while the rest of us sniggered, before both inevitably lost the seat to a safe pair of Tory hands. This election will be awful, but Clacton was going to be brilliant.

But no: 2017 deprives us of even that pleasure. Carswell has neatly sidestepped the possibility of highlighting his complete lack of personal support by standing down, with the result that he can tell himself he is quitting undefeated.

Carswell has always stood apart from Ukip but on this matter, at least, the party has rushed to follow his lead. Arron Banks spent a few days claiming that he would be running in Clacton. Then he visited the town and promptly changed his mind. At a press conference on 24 April, Paul Nuttall was asked whether he planned to stand for a seat in Westminster. Rather than answering, he locked himself in a room, presumably in the hope that the journalists outside would go away. Really.

As for Farage, he seems finally to have shaken his addiction to losing elections and decided not to stand at all. “It would be a very easy win,” he wrote in the Daily Tele­graph, “and for me a personal vindication to get into the House of Commons after all these years of standing in elections.” He was like an American teenager assuring his mates that his definitely real Canadian girlfriend goes to another school.

Why does all of this bother me? I don’t want these people anywhere near Westminster, and if they insisted on standing for a seat there would be at least the chance that, in these febrile times, one of them might actually win. So why am I annoyed that they aren’t even bothering?

Partly I’m infuriated by the cowardice on show. They have wrecked my country, completely and irrevocably, and then they’ve just legged it. It’s like a version of Knock Down Ginger, except instead of ringing the doorbell they’ve set fire to the house.

Partly, too, my frustration comes from my suspicion that it doesn’t matter whether Ukip fields a single candidate in this election. Theresa May’s Tories have already assimilated the key tenets of Farageism. That Nigel Farage no longer feels the need to claw his way into parliament merely highlights that he no longer needs to.

Then there’s the fury generated by my lingering sense that these men have managed to accrue a great deal of power without the slightest hint of accountability. In the south London seat of Vauxhall, one of the most pro-Remain constituencies in one of the most pro-Remain cities in the UK, the Labour Leave campaigner Kate Hoey is expected to face a strong challenge from the Liberal Democrats. Even Labour members are talking about voting tactically to get their hated MP out.

It remains to be seen whether that campaign succeeds but there is at least an opportunity for angry, pro-European lefties to register their discontent with Hoey. By contrast, Farage and his henchmen have managed to rewrite British politics to a degree that no one has achieved in decades, yet there is no way for those who don’t approve to make clear that they don’t like it.

Mostly, though, my frustration is simpler than that. I just loathe these people. I want to see them humiliated. I want to see them stumble from gaffe to gaffe for six weeks before coming fourth – but now we will be deprived of that. Faced with losing, the biggest names in Ukip have decided that they no longer want to play. And so they get to win again. They always bloody win. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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