Why did you join the Panel?

I worked for 14 years in the drinks industry, for smaller producers rather than global establishments. During that time I was able to join the Portman Group Public Affairs Directors group and have a chance to input on the codes and guidance that help the industry to self-regulate and encourage the responsible marketing of alcohol. The managing director of our company had been involved in the establishment of the Portman Group right from the start, and that ethos had always been important to me.

We were launching brands in an area where there were a lot of exciting new products who had fun with their marketing – but it needed to be done in the right way. Yes, we were selling alcohol and building a brand, but it needed to be done carefully, or we would damage that brand.  We took pride in our responsibilities even as a smaller producer and worked with not only The Portman Group but also Drinkaware and Community Alcohol Partnerships to ensure we were playing our part and contributing to education about alcohol as well as responsible marketing, alongside the global names of other TPG members.

It gave me the opportunity to fully understand how important the self-regulatory model was, and the need for clear guidance to producers of all sizes on how to follow the Codes. I was also part of a working group on the guidance around the emerging area of digital marketing and it was clear to me then how much marketing teams needed to consider the issues and work together as an industry to learn from each other and ensure a common approach to responsible marketing – which the Portman Group was facilitating.

So when I was first told about the ICP role, I jumped at the chance to continue to contribute in some way to this knowledge sharing and ability to help keep brands marketing in the right way – be they large or small. 

Did it live up to expectations?

Yes it did, and I enjoyed both terms, but it was more challenging than I expected. Beforehand, having worked on PADs and heard Panel decisions, I did not fully appreciate the level of discussion that takes place. Every single Panel member takes time to review the dossier before the meeting in detail, and then considers every point carefully. Initial thoughts then lead to more nuanced debate and taking other people’s viewpoint into account before final comments.

And that is where the range of the panel’s experiences come to the fore – we are all recruited for different reasons, and all have a relevant background of some sort.  I learnt so much from others who worked with young people, or had experience of health or policing issues that helped us understand the possible impacts on many different audiences.  We each had to take on all these different points and come to a joint decision, which was much more complex than I imagined – but I thoroughly enjoyed that process and the debates we had, as it meant no decision was ever taken lightly.

It reconfirmed in my mind the importance of the independent panel model within self-regulation of the industry.  Having worked on PADs, I already knew that the rules apply to all brands and companies, but having to take decisions on global member companies was especially interesting as it shows that there is no favouritism – each case is considered on it’s own merit.  I was also impressed by the strict procedures in place on confidentiality and impartiality. As someone who had worked in the industry, I was able to recuse myself whenever I (or the chair) felt that I was too close to a case or a producer.

However, that industry knowledge meant that I was able to represent the smaller producer and explain to other panel members about marketing or production points that might be relevant, and how the complaints process may impact on the decisions brand owners make.

What are some of the trends you noticed?

I think there has certainly been an increase in the number of small producers coming to market with products that are not compliant with the Codes – often through lack of awareness, rather than intent.  It’s now possible for small producers to reach a much wider market through digital channels for example, where they may not be aware of the licensing and packaging guidelines in the same way as larger producers with more experience.

This has tended to be in certain sub categories that have grown in popularity and where there are also less barriers to produce in smaller volumes, but also where there is a trend for more creative and artistic packaging than some other categories. Less traditional designs have resulted in more complaints in some areas as more consumers become aware of them.

There is a need then for producers to engage with the Portman Group and realise that the industry can work together to be responsible and educate others. This isn’t about restricting sales or stifling creativity and it’s certainly not ‘the fun police’ as some producers seem to want to depict the Portman Group and it’s members. The members include smaller producers as well (a fact ignored by those wishing to be negative) and they all want to ensure responsible marketing of alcohol not only because it is ethically right but it’s right for their brand values and to demonstrate that self-regulation can work in this area, without the need for legislation.

This misunderstanding sometimes means that producers will push the boundaries or think that the rules don’t apply to them. Just because you know your target market, it doesn’t mean that you can do whatever you like on pack and ignore potential impacts on anyone else.

A common defence we received was that “this was the first complaint they’d had” or that they weren’t in breach because they were sold only in high end retailers at a premium price.  But the Panel have to look beyond that and know that this was a genuine complaint, and that placement and price are out of their remit because this product could then be found in someone’s home.  Once it’s been purchased, and it’s in the fridge or on the shelf, the price doesn’t matter if it overtly appeals to under 18’s, or if it’s not clear that it’s alcoholic. That’s when we apply the Code in detail and consider the full context of the packaging, not just one single element.

What advice would you give someone launching a product?

Get some advice before you begin! And make sure that you include your designers and packaging suppliers in this as well – it’s not enough to have a great piece of artwork, if it’s not compliant with the Codes.  The panel will consider the packaging in context to make their decision but will also think about setting a precedent to help with future advice. For example, if a particular word or image is deemed problematic on a spirit bottle, would we have the same issue with it on a beer can? What is the context and how else can it be applied?

Whilst I’ve seen plenty of examples of where producers have got things wrong through an easy mistake, it’s also very easy to get advice from the Advisory Service up front.  Their guidance is not a guarantee that you won’t get a complaint or that it won’t be upheld, but they will base it on their experience of the code and of previous ICP decisions.

They are also very well versed in packaging guidance and a wealth of other information, so I would encourage every producer out there to speak to them – it’s free and having worked alongside them for many years, I would say their knowledge is invaluable.

Anything else that you would say is important?

The independence of the panel and the breadth of experience is really important – I think some producers think it’s the Portman Group members out to get them and this is so far from the truth that its very frustrating to hear! So reinforcing that message would be helpful.