26 May 2023

M&S hogs the spotlight but avoids Percy Pig retail scandal

M&S hogs the spotlight but avoids Percy Pig retail scandal.

Written by Joe Jordan, Senior Account Executive at Spreckley

M&S narrowly avoided a retail scandal earlier this month, requesting Fabio’s Gelato, an independent ice cream retailer based in the leafy Hertfordshire town of Hitchin, change the name of its ‘Perky Pig’ ice cream flavour. In a letter sent to owner Fabio Vicenti, the retail giant cited quality control and licencing issues as justification for its concerns.

The ‘Perky Pig’ name lasted a little over a week, with a customer competition declaring ‘Notorious P.I.G’ the flavour’s final designation.

The story had all the makings of a scandal – the corporate giant throwing its weight around against a defenceless home counties ice cream parlour – but M&S seems to have emerged with its reputation largely unscathed.

So, how exactly did M&S dodge the inevitable Fabio vs Goliath tabloid headlines?

Delivery is everything

M&S has faced allegations of bullying in the past­ – the retailer nearly took Aldi to court over its Colin the Caterpillar knock off – so it’s good to see them learn from previous mistakes.

The tone of the letter Vicenti received was far-removed from the ominous implications of a typical cease and desist, with the supermarket stating it was “flattered Fabio’s had been inspired to create a flavour based on our Percy Pig sweets, and in no way wish to stop them from selling this flavour.”

Percy Pig Scandal.

A free bag of Percy Pigs was included as a further attempt to sweeten the deal, reinforcing the non-confrontational intent with which the letter was sent.

In this instance a personal touch went a long way, and M&S was able to flip the narrative in its favour by explaining the rationale behind the name change request and encouraging Fabio’s to continue selling the flavour under a different moniker.

News coverage of the incident would have taken on a far more sinister edge had M&S dispensed of the pleasantries and demanded the ice cream parlour become a Percy Pig-free zone. The overwhelmingly positive sentiment toward the brand in the aftermath certainly vindicates the media-friendly approach.

An unexpected upside

While M&S may have set out to avoid a public scandal with the tone of its letter, the end result has somewhat rehabilitated the brand’s image, demonstrating personal growth since waging war on an unsuspecting Cuthbert.

The retailer has clearly made a concerted effort to reconsider how it handles such situations, and the comms team has settled on a strategy that is far more befitting of the company’s image and less likely to come under fire.

M&S has emerged with a significant amount of free publicity for its own brand and the Percy Pig brand while managing to keep the public onside, so the comms department can certainly consider this a win.

Putting Hitchin on the map

If there’s one major victor from this entire saga, it’s Fabio’s. Vicenti’s business has received more national press coverage than you would ever expect for a retailer with two stores and employee numbers barely in double digits.

As a resident of Hitchin myself I can admit it’s not every day that the town makes it to the broadsheets, so it really is remarkable to see Fabio’s generate such significant interest.

Vincenti has done a good job of keeping the story alive, posting a follow up letter on social media he received from Lidl surrendering the rights to its ‘Henry Hippo’ brand alternative. The post received further national coverage and ensured engagement remained high.

Notorious for the right reasons?

Intrigued by the debacle, I headed into town last weekend to see what all the fuss was about. The final verdict: I’m not sure ‘Notorious P.I.G’ deserved a media frenzy but it was still pretty damn good.