What’s the difference between a Superlatte and a Super Latte? To a fledgling South African beverage business, a lot. To Woolworths, not so much.
It was June, 2017. My business, Superlatte, had been in operation for a year since launching a market stall at Cape Town’s OZCF Market in June of 2016. As a self-funded startup in the food and beverage industry, I’d survived a long and tough first year, but business looked promising.
I had launched three signature, plant based superfood drinks into the South African market – a turmeric, beetroot and matcha latte powder blend. The launch coincided with the global trend around turmeric and ‘rainbow’ lattes, typically plant-based (vegan), and it was exciting to be at the helm of exploring what these delicious and photogenic coffee-alternatives could mean in the lives of health-conscious South Africans.
Within one year I’d landed a national health food restaurant chain and several Cape Town coffee chains with my 750g catering format. My newly launched 200g retail bags were on the shelves of South Africa’s premier national health food grocery chain, and independent grocers were following suit.
Along with exposure on shelves and menus in cities across the country, I had just exhibited at the Good Food and Wine Show in Cape Town in early June. These were milestones won through long hours, arduous physical labour and financial stress. But I was ‘making it’ amidst a ton of challenges, and it felt good to be working my passion for clean, plant-based living.
Unfortunately, June was also the month I discovered that Woolworths had launched a ‘superfood latte’ concept to their cafe menu, with striking similarities to my brand.
Woolworths had used a close variation of my registered brand name ‘SUPERLATTE’ to title a new section on their beverage menu.
The section featured just three beverages – a turmeric, beetroot and matcha latte. Sure, they’d used a pause between the ‘Super’ and ‘Latte’ and added a plural ‘S’, but in the context of the menu items to follow – near identical replications of my three blends in key ingredients and colours – it looked liked Woolworths was attempting to ride my wave.
Media reports were abound with similar ‘passing-off’ type manoeuvres by the retail giant, and as the latest target, it hurt. Immediate thoughts were, ‘why had they not approached me? ‘We could have worked together’? ‘I’ve been doing all this work to create a category and now they come in to reap the reward? ‘They’re going to sink my business!’
Naturally I felt betrayed and anxious about what this would mean for Superlatte. As a health-conscious South African and lover of new culinary movements, Woolworths had always been the first port of call for my family. I grew up with the Woolies brand and it held a special place. Now, as a newcomer to the food and beverage business world, I thought of Woolworths in the same way – a trustworthy, premier retailer which, if I could ‘land’, would be the ultimate retail home for Superlatte in South Africa.
To this end, I decided not to take action. I was discouraged and intimated by their size and realised that legally, they were within their rights. They had after all, split my registered trade mark SUPERLATTE into two separate words, with a plural ‘s’ tacked on, to make SUPER LATTES.
As far as the latte flavours went, well it’s nearly impossible to copyright a recipe, and there were a couple of variations in the Woolworths version. My thinking was that rather than damage my chance to one day stock Woolies, I would ‘keep calm and carry on’, hoping that this would be a passing phase for the retailer.
As it turned out, the loss of a chance to work with Woolies was the last thing to worry about. In their possible attempts at re-creating my concept and flavours, they’d arguably opted for recipes and ingredients which – in my opinion – could tarnish the fledgling category in terms of quality and taste. Customers and followers were sharing that they’d had one of ‘my lattes’ at Woolies, or, that the lattes on offer tasted ‘horrible’. Of course they hadn’t had a Superlatte but something which looked and sounded like it.
Fast track to 2019 and the confusion continues. I’m asked regularly if it’s my product on the Woolies menu, and did I know the lattes didn’t ‘taste the same’? It’s one thing to ‘take inspiration’, but at least do it well – this category needs all the help it can get. And it’s this point that has left a lasting bad taste in my mouth.
On February 5, 2019, Woolworths is still punting ‘Super Lattes’ on their cafe menu. In my opinon, they still taste inferior to my blends, and people still confuse my brand with what’s on offer at Woolies.
Who can say what damage has been done? In cities like Cape Town and Jo’burg, where Superlatte is on the menu of a long list of quality cafes, category-newcomers get perhaps a second chance at exploring these relatively new flavour combinations. But in Nelspruit? In Bethlehem? In Kimberley? What chance do I have there to re-engage a customer who experienced a ‘less-than-ideal’ turmeric latte at Woolies, possibly attaching the experience to my brand name in confusion, and is forever lost?
Woolworths have since launched their own range of instant single serve ‘superfood’ latte blends, a turmeric, beetroot and matcha pack. Again, the retailer appears inspired by Superlatte, replicating two of my product names, ‘Red Velvet’ and ‘Golden Latte’.
And again, we have a quality concern. Unlike Superlatte and the majority of similar brands overseas, the Woolworths blends are relatively high in sugar and are not plant-based, containing milk powder. More clouding of the category and cheapening of the movement towards healthy coffee alternatives, in my opinion, but ultimately to be expected from mainstream retail.
So what’s the bottom line here? In 2019, turmeric lattes and the like are hardly a unique concept. We don’t ‘own’ the trend nor the flavour combinations, but we do own our name.
Supporting the local startups Woolworths finds so inspiring would be a good start. But for now, perhaps Woolworths could consider a menu refresh?