Marmitegate will mark the moment that Brexit got real

Marmitegate will mark the moment that Brexit got real

Tesco and Unilever might have resolved their differences for now, but consumers will feel the pain of paying more for their favourite brands before long, writes Brothers & Sisters' chief strategy officer.

Brexit, the Marmite topic of the year, has literally become about Marmite. The news that Tesco delisted Unilever brands temporarily knocked both Donald Trump and Nicola Sturgeon’s bill for Scottish Independence off the top of the news agenda.

The Sun called it Marmageddon while the Daily Mail condemned "marmite whingers" and urged patriotic consumers to boycott Unilever and switch to Bovril (oblivious to the fact that Bovril is also owned by you-know-who).

Meanwhile, Tesco began to run out of products and the pound fell. Well, continued to fall because fall is all it seems to do these days.

It was a bit like the rumour that spread the day after the referendum that Nando's was shutting up shop in Brexit UK. Cue Twitter pandemonium until the restaurant pointed out that they weren't even European and were going nowhere.

But #Marmitegate was more than a Twitter meme, it was an actual thing that happened in the real world. There were pictures of empty Tesco shelves floating around and even though the supermarket and Unilever have now resolved their differences, shoppers are for time being still unable to buy Ben & Jerry's ice cream or Hellman's mayonnaise through Tesco's website. There was a genuine moment where this became a serious issue.

And this serious issue was a reminder that famous brands are comforting. They are part of the everyday life and we don’t like it when they start disappearing. Our high streets were gutted by the crash and most still haven’t recovered, leaving the towns they once served still feeling bereft.

And in the midst of this feeling, Tesco and Unilever were facing up to each other on behalf of all the manufacturers and retailers, rowing over who should shoulder the costs of that ever-weakening pound. But this might actually go deeper than brands.

This row, however long it lasted, might signify the moment when Brexit stops meaning Brexit and starts meaning something proper, like price rises.

Consumers may well have a little less care for brand choice when the price of their food and everyday products go up, and they start to feel the very real impact of this spat on their purses.

An extra tenner tacked onto their weekly shops will hurt everyone, but it will especially hurt the poorest shoppers in the UK.

Spats like this don't end up being about whether Tesco or Unilever is going to foot the bill for a weak currency, because the person who feels the real pinch – the real, actual pinch that means there is less money for food and everyday goods – is the already cash-poor consumer.

Consumers heard from Unilever that these kinds of price hikes are "normal," as it's CFO said during the fall out. They also heard from Tesco that it was "experiencing availability issues on a number of Unilever products".

But what consumers really ended up hearing was two companies fighting about who should take the responsibility of paying for something, which has been caused by a situation outside of the companies' control – Brexit – while consumers know that this problem will probably spread to other brands and supermarkets, and ultimately, once more, to their purses.

What consumers are not hearing is Tesco and Unilever sticking up for them or promising to keep prices low during a difficult economic time that has an already high cost of living.

That is the kind of behaviour that breaks customers' brand loyalty. And that's when the jokes stop being funny for consumers and businesses alike, however good the Twitter memes are.

The darkest, unfunniest joke is when price rises lead to inflation which is controlled by rising interest rates. Higher interest rates are great news for wealthy, elderly savers, but not good for young house-hunters or those with high debts.

What a laugh that would be, as the Brexit split becomes a chasm that runs through us. Luckily for the consumer, this has all been a storm in a cup of PG Tips. For now, at least.

Phil Teer is chief strategy officer of Brothers & Sisters.

Start Your Free 30-Day Free Trial

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to , plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events.

Become a subscriber


Don’t miss your daily fix of breaking news, latest work, advice and commentary.

register free