The Potter Brothers saga
In 2020, Courtnay Adele – who went on to be a contestant in The Great Kiwi Bake Off – posted a video of Potter Brothers’ pineapple chews to her Instagram.
The sleek matte packaging bears the banner: “Handmade in New Zealand”.
She holds up a piece to the camera, having bitten off some of the chocolate shell around the pineapple filling.
“Can you see that? How there’s a layer of chocolate over another layer of chocolate?” she asks viewers.
Underneath, it looks to be a standard pineapple lump.
But it wasn’t until March 2023, when the video was posted to TikTok, that Adele’s claim around the authenticity of the Potter Brothers’ products took off.
Stewart Sowman-Lund reported on the story for The Spinoff earlier this month.
“[The Potter Brothers] talk about being a family business. A couple of brothers from Levin who have got a small factory there,” he says.
The company’s website advertised its chocolate products as ‘reimagined Kiwi classics’.
“Or at least, that’s how they originally marketed themselves until they were called out.”
The company has since admitted to using bulk products in its confectionary, and changed the wording on its website and product packaging from “handmade” to “small batch”.
University of Auckland marketing lecturer Marilyn Giroux says calling a product ‘handmade’ gives a customer the impression the product is high quality and that there’s less of it available – making it special enough to justify a higher price point.
The pineapple chews retailed in some stores at about $6 – that’s compared to $2.50 for the original Pineapple Lumps, and even cheaper for bulk, pick ‘n’ mix varieties.
Sowman-Lund says it was the Potter Brothers’ lack of honesty that annoyed customers.
But when it comes to products made using a combination of outsourced and handmade elements, it can be difficult to know where to draw the line.
The Commerce Commission has received four complaints about The Potter Brothers using misleading claims about its products so far. It is yet to decide whether to launch an investigation.
Consumer NZ chief executive Jon Duffy says the commission has a range of tools at its disposal if it decides to take action against the Potter Brothers: from writing a letter asking the company to stop, to launching criminal proceedings against them on the other.
Duffy explains to The Detail how New Zealand law works to protect consumers from misleading marketing and advertising.
“Don’t tell lies. That’s essentially what the Fair Trading Act says,” he says.
But there is no legal definition of “handmade”. If the case went to court, a judge would have to draw on what the word means in the context of New Zealand society in 2023 to make any call one way or the other.
Duffy says companies using deceptive language to sell their products is “extremely prevalent”.
“We are seeing an absolute tsunami of green claims, ethics claims, virtue signalling that just can’t be backed up by the person doing the marketing or making the products,” he says.
“There is a growing awareness that the climate is changing and it is going to have negative effects on society. So if you’re producing a product, and you’re hanging your marketing on its sustainability, you are tapping into the desire in consumers to do the right thing by the planet and not make things worse. And that’s a real marketing advantage.
“We know from psychology that people are looking for shortcuts. When you quickly read that something is ‘nature-inspired’, and it’s got a beautiful picture of a flowery meadow on the front, and maybe it’s in brown cardboard packaging, those are all cues that signal to us: ‘This is good’ … you can feel good about what you’re doing for the environment.
“That’s why it’s important for enforcement agencies like the Commerce Commission to take cases against both big and small players in the market to set those boundaries.”
Hear more about what may or may not constitute ‘handmade’ in the full podcast episode.
You can find out how to listen to and follow The Detail here.