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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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

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