Is the integrity of a brand affected by ownership?

“Success will come and go but integrity is forever”

HarrisandHoole

It was recently brought to attention in the press that seemingly independent South East coffee chain Harris & Hoole is actually 49% owned by retail giant Tesco. This caused outrage with some their customers, with one saying she feels ‘duped’.

The story highlights an interesting point; whether the integrity of a brand is affected by ownership.

Harris & Hoole was founded and is run by the Tolley family. They currently operate 10 coffee shops across London and the South East with plans to expand even further, enabling them to deliver their mission of bringing ‘fantastic tasting, professionally crafted, speciality grade, directly sourced coffee’ to the high street.

The family is passionate about coffee and, according to their website, personally train their baristas to ensure the product is at a standard across all stores ‘as good as coffee served the day they started’. The family also personally design the interior of each store to make sure each is ‘one of a kind.’ A brand is an image a seller uses to make their product or services distinct from other sellers and make it identifiable to consumers. These are all thing the Tolley family use to distinguish their brand from their coffee chain competitors.

A report by the Guardian, following the revelation of Tesco’s stake, cited customer comments such as “I avoid Starbuck because it’s a big chain and it avoids tax”, “I thought I was putting money back in the community” and “If it had been called Tesco Coffee, I wouldn’t have come in”.

Tesco own a non-controlling share in Harris & Hoole and has no input into how the business is run or how the brand is positioned. When quizzed Nick Tolley reported that putting emphasis on Tesco’s financial involvement doesn’t reflect who they are and, “It’s not some kind of subterfuge to mask ourselves as something we’re not.”

Tesco doesn’t have the greatest image with many consumers; the Tolley family would receive no added value to the Harris & Hoole brand by incorporating the Tesco name. Business exists to make money for its owners and the Tolley’s naturally want to expand their vision of bringing ‘great tasting speciality coffee to the high street’. In times of economic difficulty many small independent businesses find themselves with an uncertain future. With Tesco’s financial support the Tolley’s can ensure this doesn’t happen to Harris & Hoole, without it could leave customers forced to go back to global coffee chains to get their morning java.

One could assume that Tesco’s investment into this British business is part of a strategy to show that they are giving something back to our communities.

We need to dispel the paradox that companies can’t be profitable and responsible. Granted some organisations are greedy and serve to just make as much money as possible, but many also exist to support communities and inject their passion and values into consumers. Harris & Hoole will continue to stick to its values and create shops ‘that’s local to the community’ and ‘behave like an independent’.

Ownership of a brand should not impact on its integrity so long as the proposition remains the same.

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