The phrase ‘jumping the shark’ comes from a 1977 episode of Happy Days. Lumbering into its fifth season, the TV series was struggling to come up with new storylines. So the season premiere had Fonzie, played by real-life water sports enthusiast Henry Winkler, don a pair of water skis (along with trademark leather jacket) and jump over a captive shark watched by his Happy Days friends.
It’s an entirely ludicrous moment, made worse by the fact that the jump itself, completed in slow motion, barely cleared 10 feet of open water. The cast and crew later recognised it as the moment when the formerly dominant TV show began its inexorable decline, through another 100-and-something episodes, towards cancellation.
And then somehow, during the last 40-odd years, the phrase ‘jumping the shark’ ironically became the most famous product of Happy Days. It has become standard terminology for something that was once valid and vibrant turning a sudden corner and becoming clichéd and redundant.
Cadbury jumped the shark this month with its Unity Bar. Launched for Indian Independence Day, the idea itself is a rather lovely one. You make a special edition bar with dark, milk, white and blended chocolate and use the launch to make a point about celebrating diversity.
But the concept has been met with universal scorn as social media learned about and then disparaged the idea with a vehemence that was extreme even by its own standards.
“Where were you when Cadbury ended racism?” asked one waggish Twitter user. Others took to Photoshop and rearranged the blended design of the bar’s different flavours into isolated chunks that more accurately represented the current state of Indian culture. Indian model and TV host Padma Lakshmi posted a gif of Britney Spears looking deeply uncomfortable to express her own misgivings.
— Padma Lakshmi (@PadmaLakshmi) August 29, 2019
Why the universal rejection of such a cute idea? The clues might be found in Australia, where the local Cadbury affiliate Down Under tried something similar earlier this year.
Rather than a blended chocolate bar, the Aussie team produced a ‘Symbol For All’. Apparently, the inspiration came from managing hate-fuelled sentiment on the company’s Australian Facebook page during Easter.
In response, eight designers, a cultural anthropologist and project managers from different cultural backgrounds worked together to design a new logo – the Symbol For All – to celebrate the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
“Every single day, Cadbury’s Australian Facebook page is flooded with hateful messages and comments that have nothing to do with chocolate and everything to do with racist sentiment. As an iconic brand in Australia we have a voice and a responsibility to lead by example, which has been the impetus for the creation of this symbol,” Paul Chatfield, the director of marketing for chocolate at Cadbury owner Mondelēz International, explained back in March.
“We invite anyone who wants to show their support for a diverse and inclusive Australia to join us in sharing the symbol by downloading it, customising it and sharing it on their own channels,” Chatfield added.
Despite the bold aims of the symbol, the move was met with similar levels of cynicism to India’s unity bar. “The same as Pepsi,” commented one industry professional, referring to the soft drink’s infamous Kendall Jenner ad. “I hope this disgusting attempt to commercialise a social issue backfires. Whoever signed this off should be embarrassed.”
“One of the least authentic and clumsiest marketing attempts I’ve ever seen,” pronounced another Aussie marketer. Cadbury’s Symbol For All was gone almost as soon as it had launched, its rejection its only notable feature.
Cadbury’s history of brand purpose
At first sight it might seem odd that Cadbury would receive such vehement global push-back for its efforts at brand purpose. The Birmingham-based company has an incredible heritage of purpose stretching back almost two centuries. Back in the darkest parts of the early 19th century, when many British industrialists where sending children down mines, John Cadbury was a shining exception.
Cadbury was a Quaker and his commercial interest in tea, coffee and chocolate products was born of brand purpose. He was trying to find alternatives to alcohol to occupy the working classes because of the detrimental effects that drinking was having on so many British families.
Once his business started to become profitable – thanks largely to John’s two more commercially capable sons, Richard and George – this original purpose continued to drive the business.
All the fine talk of unity and purpose that pervades Cadbury cannot disguise the distinct odour of hypocrisy at the core of the company.
The company purchased 120 acres of land near its Birmingham head offices and created Bourneville – a residential area for Cadbury’s workers that featured light and airy homes with nearby parks and recreation areas to aid family life. The project, which came at great expense to the company, was designed to “alleviate the evils of modern, more cramped living conditions”.
If we reanimated John Cadbury and his two sons for an afternoon and showed him the Indian Unity Bar or the Australian-made Symbol for All, I suspect they would approve of both initiatives.
The Cadburys were lovely people. They cared for animals, the environment and working families long before such concerns were popular among the landed classes. The idea that Cadbury was still working to alleviate pain and suffering in the 21st century would surely bring a smile to all three ancient faces.
But we’d have to be careful with our newly reanimated trio. Knowing a little about all three men I suspect they would quickly move their attention from Indian chocolate bars and Australian logos to the business itself. And here, I suspect, they would quickly grow angry.
All the fine talk of unity and purpose that pervades Cadbury cannot disguise the distinct and disgusting odour of hypocrisy at the core of the company. Cadbury UK’s owner Mondelēz UK, which is part of Mondelēz International and also owns Oreo and Kenco, paid no corporation tax in Britain last year despite reporting sales of £1.66bn and profits of £185m.
Companies are meant to pay 19% of their profits back to the government each year but Mondelēz UK legally minimised the £35m bill this would theoretically imply to nothing. In fact, that last sentence is not correct. In documents filed at Companies House, Mondelēz UK reported that it actually received a tax credit of £320,000 for the most recent tax year, although the company told the Mirror it was an accounting item not a tax credit and that it “complies with all applicable tax legislation in the UK”.
The hypocrisy of ‘woke-washing’
We should not be surprised. In recent years, Cadbury’s corporate owners have consistently managed to avoid paying any corporate tax. Alex Cobham, who runs the Tax Justice Network, notes that Mondelēz regularly carries out “financial engineering that is very sad given Cadbury’s long history of working to generate value in the communities where they work”.
It’s a sentiment echoed by James Cadbury, the 33 year-old great-great-great-grandson of the company’s founder. James noted that his ancestors would be “disappointed with the way [the brand] was now being run”.
At this point, let me alleviate the pressure on Marketing Week’s legal department and explicitly note that Cadbury is not doing anything illegal. Far from it. It is maximising shareholder value and increasing overall company profits by legally and cleverly reducing its tax burden. The company pays every penny in tax that is legally required.
But that disclaimer excuses the company of tax fraud, not of hypocrisy. I understand why Cadbury wants to minimise tax, I really do. If my accountant found a legal way for my little consulting firm to save 100% of the amount I currently pay in corporate tax, I cannot tell you I would refuse the option either. By my best estimation, if I could apply a Cadbury approach to my own company I’d be able to enjoy an additional £350,000 a year that currently goes to the tax man and then is frittered away on benefits for single mothers, hospitals and schools.
A special kind of cynicism is reserved for a company that should, and once did, behave better than this.
But if I did take the deal and a small cheque from the government in tax credit, I would keep a very low profile whenever words like brand purpose or unity or fairness were discussed. While it’s lovely that Cadbury is selling bars of chocolate to help India become more unified and designing logos to align the world, neither of those symbolic gestures counter-balance the good works that £35m in tax each year could have done for society and the people who need it most.
It’s a really nice logo, Cadbury, but a couple of hospitals would have been better. And that was a lovely idea with the blended chocolate bar but your missing £35m could have added more than a thousand extra social workers and teachers to the communities that needed them. Guess which gesture is more purposeful?
The cynicism that seems to dog Cadbury’s woke-washing tactics is not just a function of our combined fatigue at so many big corporations jumping on the purpose brandwagon. It’s a special kind of cynicism reserved for a company that should, and once did, behave better than this.
Cadbury has a pre-installed brand purpose. It inhabits each and every strand of the company’s DNA. It is a company that was founded on love for the common man and woman.
The company is currently focusing its purpose efforts on diversity rather than that love because it knows, if it peeked at the three bearded founders back from the grave, each would point to the tax affairs of the company that they founded and weep.
There is a single, brilliant way for Cadbury to deliver on brand purpose and align with the company’s true position. Pay the full 19% of corporate tax on your profits this year, Cadbury. Every penny. And celebrate where that money will go and what it says about you as a company and as human beings.
Or, alternatively, reduce that tax to nothing once again and enjoy the extra money that this clever and incredibly legal tax minimisation bestows on you. But spare us the lectures on diversity, unity and society. Because we are better than you. We pay our taxes.