Cwtch shows how self regulation can work for the drinks industry

In the debate over the introduction of minimum pricing for alcohol, one of the arguments used by both sides was the ability/failure of the industry to self-regulate, with the drinks sector arguing that voluntary steps could be taken to regulate inappropriate promotion and pricing of alcohol; while those in favour of the introduction of the minimum pricing taking the line that without a regulatory framework proposals would not be effective.

But in other areas, it can be seen that self-regulation is effective and this has been highlighted in the recent decision of the Portman Group regarding Tiny Rebel's "Cwtch" product.

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What is the Portman Group?

While many will be aware of the Advertising Standards Authority and the role it plays in monitoring advertising in all its forms, the ASA does not, generally, regulate the packaging of products and it is left to other organisations such as Trading Standards to ensure that packaging complies with any relevant regulations and also is not misleading.

But for the drinks industry, this function is carried out by the Portman Group, which most will not have heard of. The Portman Group is a not-for-profit organisation funded by 11 member companies who represent every sector of drinks production and collectively account for more than half the UK alcohol market. Its role is to:-

  • Lead on best practice on social responsibility aspects;
  • Regulate the promotion and packaging of alcoholic drinks; and
  • Encourage the industry to market its products responsibly.

As part of this, it has a Code of Practice on the naming, packaging and promotion of alcoholic drinks which, while now in its fifth version, was first introduced in April 1996, with the principal aims of the Code being to ensure that alcoholic products are promoted in a socially responsible manner and only to those over the age of 18.

Packaging 'appealing to children'

The Portman Group received a complaint about Tiny Rebel's "Cwtch" Welsh Red Ale, the concern being that the packaging made it appear to be a non-alcoholic drink which would appeal to children. While the complaint itself raised a number of points, the Panel which considered the matter looked at various elements of the packaging:

  • The size (being sold in a 330ml can which is usually associated with soft drinks);
  • The use of a cartoon character, and in particular a teddy bear, on the packaging; and
  • The bright colouring and overall design.

Tiny Rebel pointed out that:

  • Many drinks are sold in this size of packaging;
  • The bear was deliberately not depicted as a child's teddy bear;
  • The colour and overall packaging was inspired by psychedelic imaging and 1960s culture; and
  • Most importantly, the words "Welsh Red Ale" and "Beer" were prominent on the packaging.

The Panel's decision, however, was that overall the product could be regarded as appealing to those under 18 and while this may not have been the intention, it is the effect which is important. As a result, Tiny Rebel has discussed with The Portman Group how the packaging can be changed so that it will not be seen as appealing to those under 18.

The result is a sensible and pragmatic approach to the issue. But the Portman Group is not a government organisation, nor is membership or adherence to its codes compulsory. So why should an independent brewer such as Tiny Rebel comply?

PR, peer pressure and consumer protection

The answer is, quite clearly, PR and consumer-led issues and also, to a large extent, the power of the multiple retailers. The Portman Group could not impose any fines and submissions to its policies is voluntary – but if it were to consider that a particular product or manufacturer or producer was not complying with its code, in addition to PR issues for the producer involved there is the very real risk that retailers would not wish to be seen to be encouraging sales of alcoholic products to children and so delist not only the product, but perhaps others as well.

So, even where there is not government regulation, it can be seen that the drinks industry is aware of its social responsibilities and acting responsibly. This particular action had only arisen from one complaint from one anonymous member of the public so it was not directly consumer-led. But it shows that peer pressure and the desire to promote a responsible attitude in the sector can achieve results without the need for government regulation.

We can all drink (responsibly) to that.

Get in touch

Scott Kerr is Head of Harper Macleod LLP’s Food and Drink Group. If you wish to discuss any of the issues raised in this article, please get in touch.