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
Julia Rampen
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Donald Trump's inauguration marks the start of the progressive fightback

Opponents to Donald Trump and Brexit are reaching across the Atlantic. But can they catch up with the alt-right? 

In the icy lemon sunshine of 20 January 2017, a group of protestors lined London’s Millennium Bridge, drumming. Two scarf-clad organisers held placards that spelt “Open Hearts”. 

Protesting the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th US President might seem like a waste of time when you could spend the day under the covers instead. But the protestors were upbeat. Sophie Dyer, a part-time student and graphic designer I met on the bridge, told me her group were “trying to avoid mentioning his name”. 

When I asked her what had catalysed her interest in political activism, she said: “Everything. 2016.”

One of the trademarks of the times is the way the alt-right learnt from each other, from Donald Trump crowning himself “Mr Brexit”, to France’s Marine Le Pen sipping coffee at Trump Towers. Now, progressives are trying to do the same. 

The protestors were part of the Bridges Not Walls protests. Ten hours before I stepped onto the Millennium Bridge, New Zealand activists had already got started. As the sun rose over Europe, banners unfurled from bridges in Dubai, France, Spain, Sweden and Norway. In the UK, there were also protests in other cities including Edinburgh and Oxford.

The demonstrations are about Trump – the name is a direct rebuke to his pledge to build a wall on the southern border – but they are no less about Brexit, or, as environmental campaigner Annabelle Acton-Boyd put it, “right-wing populist movements”. 

Acton-Boyd said she had come to show solidarity with American friends who opposed Trump.

But she added: “It is about coming together supporting each other geographically, and across different [political and social] movements.” 

In the election post-mortem, one of the questions confronting progressives is whether voters and activists were too focused on their own issues to see the bigger picture. This varies from controversial debates over the role of identity politics, to the simpler fact that thousands of voters in the rustbelt who might have otherwise helped Clinton opted for the Green candidate Jill Stein.

But while Bridges Not Walls paid homage to different causes - LGBTQ rights were represented on one bridge, climate change on an other - each  remained part of the whole. The UK Green Party used the event to launch a “Citizens of the World” campaign aimed at resettling more child refugees. 

Meanwhile, Trump and his European allies are moving fast to redefine normal. Already, media critics are being blocked from presidential press conferences, divisive appointments have been made and the intelligence authorities undermined. 

As US opponents of Trump can learn from those in the UK resisting a hard Brexit, resisting this kind of right-wing populism comes at a cost, whether that is personal infamy a la Gina Miller, or the many hours spent dusting off books on constitutional law. 

The question for transatlantic progressives, though, is whether they are prepared to leave the morning sunshine for the less glamorous elbow grease of opposition – the late night email exchanges, the unpaid blog posts, the ability to compromise - that will be needed to bend the arc of history back towards justice. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.