Tuesday, 13 September 2005

Not so smart, these Smarties

Nestlé have, in their time, done lots of things to lots of people that have hardly endeared themselves to the campaigners of the world. You don't have to do too much rooting around on this thing we call the Internet to read about some of their decidedly unfair trade with coffee producing nations, for a start, and I'm not even going to talk about them and baby milk. Closer to home, and on a more personal basis, some years ago they bought Rowntree Mackintosh and promptly closed the chocolate factory that perfumed the air of my student days with its sweet Yorkie aroma. But now they have gone too far... they've messed around with Smarties.

Smarties come in tubes! Everyone knows this! The plastic lid can be flipped off with your thumb (this can look quite cool with practice)! The lid has a letter of the alphabet embossed on its underside, so you never know what letter of the alphabet you're going to get until you leave the shop! People collect the lids, striving to complete their collections of every letter in every colour! Rare lids even change hands on e-Bay! If you put the lid back on an empty tube, then thwack the tube suitably hard, you can propel the lid across the room! If they remove the lid and the cardboard bottom from a tube, kids can pretend they have a telescope! And best of all, Smarties lids make excellent emergency guitar plectrums!

Enough exclamation marks. As I hope you can tell from the previous rant paragraph, I rather like the traditional packaging of Smarties, the British sweet that was a regular treat in my childhood and an Easter Egg banker in my adult years. The whole sturdy-cardboard-tube, plastic lid and cardboard bottom assembly had a certain reliability to it that appealed to me as a kid and resonates with the older me. When you've eaten the sweets, you can disassemble the packaging, make things out of the tubes and collect the lids. What could be better?

According to Nestlé, a flimsy hexagonal package with integrated cardboard flip-top, that's what. Whatever were they thinking? At the risk of being accused of getting emotive on this subject, let's first consider the practical issues: the new, hexagonal Smarties tube top doesn't stay closed. I know because, in a fit of curiosity, I bought a packet; after eating my first Smartie, I closed the integrated flip-top and put the packet safely in my fleece pocket. Half an hour later, I fancied another sweet so I unzipped my pocket and took out... a handful of loose Smarties. It seems the new lid only stays closed if you do not move or touch the packet in any way! All I did in that half an hour was walk for five minutes and then sit on a bus... and that was enough to scupper the collective genius of the finest Nestlé design brains. Or maybe their accountancy brains, for surely this is a cost-saving exercise. The old Smarties tube comprised three separate pieces of cardboard that had to be assembled on specialist machinery, together with a plastic lid. The new hexagonal packaging is pressed out of a single piece of insubstantial card and then glued down one side. Still the Nestlé marketing people assert that this is about innovation, not profits... but what do they take us for, really? That argument is about as robust as the new packaging it has been dreamed up to support.

Okay, now it's time for the emotive issues. People collect Smartie lids! There's probably even a proper name for such people (stop making up your own jokes) that has a Greek stem with -ist stuck on the end. What are they going to do now? And kids used to play with the empty tubes; as well as the pretend telescope mentioned earlier, who hasn't blown down a tube like it was a miniature trumpet or, better yet, a Lilliputian didgeridoo? Now all kids will be able to do is complain that they've lost their sweets when the new packaging steadfastly refuses to stay closed.

So what can we do about all this? Probably not very much. After all, we're dealing with the same company that took our beloved Opal Fruits ("made to make your mouth water") and rebranded them as Starburst (made to make you want to poke a Nestlé executive with a stick). The reason for this crime against another of our cherished childhood reminiscences: global brand consistency. This is also why Marathon bars are now Snickers and Jif bathroom cleaner is now Cif, but those are not Nestlé crimes. But let's get back to saving Smarties tubes - several online campaigns and petitions have already begun that I urge you to support. There are also numerous anti-Nestlé organisations that you can think about, but take care with these in case you inadvertently sign up with an organisation that's a little more extreme than you'd thought. As for me, I fully intend to register my disgust by writing to (and possibly phoning) Nestlé, and you can too - here's the address and other contact details:
Nestlé Customer Services
P.O. Box No 203
YO91 1XY
00800 63785385 (from the UK and RoI)
In the USA, a groundswell of public opinion forced Coca-Cola to backtrack on a recipe change in the mid-1980's, so maybe there's hope. Somehow though, I can't see that level of resistance to change here in Britain; instead, we'll just stiffen our upper lips and get on with retrieving the Smarties that have escaped their new packaging and are lying loose in our pockets. Only Smarties have the answer, the old advertising slogan used to say; that may be so, but they don't have decent tubes any more, and that's a shame.

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