A little known brand of ginger beer has raised its profile with an ill-considered campaign in which parents were invited to swap their red-haired children for free six-packs of Hakanoa ginger beer. It must be one of those ideas that (weirdly) sounded fine at the time but just didn't translate so well into reality. Needless to say, controversy ensued.

There were over 10,000 responses to the NZ Herald online poll on the topic: 51 per cent of respondents found it funny while 39 per cent found it offensive. Go figure. As a society we're clearly far more relaxed about making niche groups feel marginalised than we really ought to be. I can't say I was actually offended by the initiative but I did find it wildly inappropriate. Just because discriminating against hair colour isn't yet covered by human rights legislation doesn't mean redheads are fair game.

It would be fair to say that there was outrage over 'trade ginger kids for ginger beer' campaign. I wish I didn't need to explain why everyone wasn't thrilled about it. Denigrating any group of people is just nasty - as is maligning certain physical characteristics.

But if the ginger thing in general seemed fine to you, how do you feel about the fact that children were the focus? The campaign wasn't of the generic ginger variety; it was specifically mocking redheaded children - which not only seems mean but, when considered in light of our nation's diabolical record for not treasuring children, can also be viewed as downright sinister. Anti-bullying campaigners and parents of redheads certainly thought so anyway.


A follow-up communication was issued from the brand concerned: "We're huge fans of ginger here ... including ginger humans. We think it sucks that it's okay to taunt a person for having flame-coloured hair." Really? This stance is hard to swallow when the day before they were in serious taunting mode. The ginger beer campaign talked about people being "cursed with ginger children", the supposed fact that "[p]arents of ginger children have a pretty tough lot in life" and also "[l]et's be honest; no one really wants a ginger."

Along with Irish jokes and blonde jokes, these may be the warped things that certain people laugh about in private but when such sentiments cross over into the mainstream, are associated with brands attempting to increase market share, it's proper that we express our displeasure and concern.

And, of course, the ginger campaign was also a poor business decision. Tui beer and Hell Pizza may be able to get away with irreverent communications that alienate the more refined sectors of society but Hakanoa is a handmade ginger beer with presumably a far more urbane target market.

Unless things have changed since I completed my Diploma of Business (Marketing) at the University of Auckland, this ginger beer has executed a massive fail by launching a campaign that doesn't resonate with its core customer base. Surely it's Marketing 101 - not to mention common sense - to understand that a brand wilfully creating dissonance with its own supposed values is a brand on the fast-track to extinction.

Until this debacle, Hakanoa ginger beer - made of filtered water and organic ingredients - had been true to itself. Named after a street in trendy Grey Lynn, it has been a regular feature of farmers' markets throughout Auckland. Sold in Farro Fresh and written about in magazines such as Canvas and Dish, it's an artisan product that just might have been on the up and up.

Its ginger campaign has clearly raised awareness - but at what cost? Brand values have been seriously compromised, if not obliterated, and sales may be declining already in light of angry calls to boycott the ostensibly anti-redhead brand. Hakanoa ginger beer looks poised to go down in history as the little fizzy drink that could have made it big but for that one unfortunate misstep.

What was your response to the ginger campaign? Was it funny or offensive? And what do you think about brands that deliberately choose to offend certain sectors of society?
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