Craft Debate Revisited: Consumers and Lawyers

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Further thoughts on the craft subject

Last March, I wrote about Craft Confusion and this past week two interesting pieces of information have come to my attention.

The first was a webinar co-sponsored by the law firms of Locke Lord, experienced in defending consumer products companies in class action lawsuits and Lehrman Beverage Law, a law firm specializing in the alcohol industry labeling and regulation.

A day later Wine and Spirits Daily reported two surveys on the topic – among its readers (industry leaders) and among 2,000 consumers via a survey conducted by Nielsen.

Both of these have had an impact on my view of the topic.

The Lawyers

In a webinar entitled, Spirits Industry Under Fire, Tom Cunningham and Simon Fleischman of Locke Lord and Robert Lehrman of Lehrman Beverage Law discussed what the flood of class action lawsuits are about, why they are filed, who the targets are and why. (Here is the full discussion.)

My takeaway is as follows.

Blame the bottom feeding plaintiff attorneys. As you can see in the report from Locke Lord, the filing of one case creates a “herd mentality” with copycat suits following. It started with Skinny Girl, largely because the label used the phrase “all natural” and that ambiguity was enough to generate a lawsuit. From there it became an epidemic with more than a half dozen other suits including Tito’s, Templeton and others. Follow the money.

According to Locke Lord:

Plaintiffs’ class action attorneys by and large don’t care whether your product is truly “handmade” or made in “small batches” or is “craft.” They trade in what is essentially blackmail and terrorism. If they have a basis for alleging that your product is not what you claim it to be, even if you fervently believe that it is, they will sue you. Very few cases go to trial. Especially class action cases, which can easily kill a company. They have the power to put you out of business simply by making a claim. Therefore, you are likely to pay them to simply drop their claim, even if it’s bogus.

In other words these attorneys are hoping for a payday in a settlement that includes their fees. The best example of this shame is that they use “professional plaintiffs.” Thomas Zimmerman is a class action attorney in Chicago, often referred to as the city that is the home of “numerous notorious plaintiff’s’ class action attorneys.”

It turns out that Zimmerman represents Mario Aliano and Mr. Aliano’s restaurant, Due Fratelli. Aliano and his restaurant claim to have purchased a number of different brands of liquors – both for personal consumption as well as for resale in the restaurant. So the ambiguity or other issues regarding marketing and labeling was enough for these folks to sue Templeton, Whistlepig, Angel’s Envy and Tin Cup on behalf of Aliano and Due Fratelli.

Does this sound to you like consumers or retailers who need to seek redress because they were deceived?

According to Locke Lord,

“Mr. Aliano and his restaurants are what we call “serial plaintiffs;” they act as Zimmerman’s plaintiffs and class representatives in numerous class actions and generally receive an incentive award of a few thousand dollars in the resulting settlements. In terms of sheer number of cases, Zimmerman is the leader.”

Until the US adopts a legal system involving a “loser pays” rule, class action suits will hurt all businesses. That’s a rule in many countries whereby the party who loses in court pays the other party’s attorney’s fees. Read this recent article in the Wall Street Journal.

The other solution involves labeling

Robert Lehrman offers some explanations and sound advice.

First, the fact that the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) approved the label at the Federal level is not a so-called “safe harbor.” The TTB has the tools necessary to control anything “misleading” but does not enforce it and “risks being a bystander and ceding much power to the courts and private litigants.”

My interpretation – the TTB needs to “man up” and either become an agency protecting consumers who drink alcohol products or fold the tent and let another government entity do it.

The other answers involve substantiation of claims, transparency, revisiting marketing and above all (in my view) certification. If I were running a small batch production brand I would want the American Distilling Institute or American Craft Spirits Association seal on my label. In that way I would expect to reassure my consumers and hopefully also use it as shark repellant.

The Consumer

Wine and Spirits Daily asked consumers (through a Nielsen survey) “Which of the following are the top 3 terms you associate with the word ‘craft’ as it relates to alcohol beverage products?” This was the list of choices:

  • produced locally
  • handcrafted
  • environmentally responsible
  • small, independent company
  • artisanal
  • higher priced
  • small batch production
  • superb quality
  • healthy alternative
  • highest ethical standards

The top five consumer results: 1) small, independent company 2) small batch production 3) handcrafted 4) produced locally 5) artisanal.

The same question was posed to their readers (industry professionals) who were asked to predict what terms they thought consumers would use. The answers were fairly close – 1) small batch production 2) artisanal 3) small, independent company 4) handcrafted 5) superb quality.

Even more interesting, Nielsen asked about the influence of craft. “Which of the following describes how you feel when you hear an alcoholic beverage described as Craft? More interested, less interested or doesn’t influence purchase decision.

A third of all consumers surveyed said hearing something described as craft does make them more interested. BUT, nearly 50% of millennial males (21 to 34 years old) felt the same way.

Putting these two pieces together…

The consumer is not stupid. The WSD survey tells me that some don’t care about craft alcohol products and, among those who do, they have a strong idea as to whether the use of the term is genuine, marketing hype, or even outright deception.

Above all, I don’t think we need to waste the time of the courts with serial lawsuits and bogus plaintiffs just so a few attorneys can get a payday.

Like I said, there are other solutions.

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6 comments

  1. Touché Arthur! It has been apparent to me that these law coming from the same law firms that have become “ambulance chaser so” looking for a buck! No wonder the public has such biased opinion of lawyers.

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