There are good reasons why F&B brands might want to adjust a recipe for different markets, but are they prepared for the possible consequences?

We all know that all brands aren’t identical across all markets. Ingredients may be tweaked to take account of local tastes, as we were recently reminded by UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak.

“I’m addicted to Coke,” he told a couple of schoolboys before hurriedly clarifying he meant the brown, liquid stuff from Atlanta. And he went on to extol the virtues of Mexico’s Coca-Cola in particular, which is apparently sweetened with cane sugar rather than corn syrup. 

But hey, it’s still Coca-Cola, isn’t it? Any brand that tinkers with its make-up across borders needs to remain recognisably the same, even if there are subtle differences.

The reasons given for that tinkering are invariably about meeting consumer tastes in particular markets – and in an age of brand purpose and consumer-centricity that’s a good tale to tell. A new book suggests the reality is more often about simple economics. 

In Café Europa Revisited: How to Survive Post-Communism, Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulić recounts the “food apartheid” which saw western manufacturers selling their brand promise into eastern European countries, but the brand itself might come with cheaper and/or fewer ingredients. 

The differences often weren’t that subtle – they were obvious to a six-year old from Bratislava encountering the higher quality versions of certain products in Vienna – but the fact that the brands were available at all was a sign of how things had changed for the better. 

That’s not a sustainable long-term position however. People are bound to notice eventually that they’re getting something different from their neighbours. 

“When we entered the EU, we believed it to be a community in which all citizens enjoyed an equal right to freedom,” Drakulić recalls. “It did not occur to us that Coke and Nutella would not be of the same quality.” 

And even when it did, she preferred to live in denial, she explains, because the alternative was to admit to a second-class citizenship and lose trust in the only recently-joined European Union.

But a succession of investigations in the past few years by consumer associations and food safety authorities have uncovered differences large and small. So, for example, Leibniz biscuits sold in Poland were found to contain 5% butter and some palm oil (a cheaper alternative), while those sold in Germany contained 12% butter and no palm oil.

In reality, brands are usually adapting recipes to meet local spending power rather than local tastes – decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, purchasing power in much of eastern Europe remains below that of western Europe – but it’s difficult to admit that. 

Brands are damned either way: they can’t tell consumers they’re getting an inferior version because they can’t afford the real thing; and even pretending their tastes are different can be seen as somehow insulting.

The current approach is legal and justifiable but it doesn’t necessarily engender long-term trust in a brand. 

Worse, it can be seized on by political operators to bolster their own particular position: nationalist politicians in parts of eastern Europe have been using these food differences to stoke anti-EU sentiment – the “food apartheid” phrase comes from Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borissov.  And our own prime minster has some previous on this, having filed made-up stories about EU restrictions on bendy bananas and prawn-cocktail crisps when he was a Brussels-based journalist. 

Food is emotional and people can get angry if they think they’re being played for fools. There may be good reasons to adjust a recipe, whether business or taste, but those decisions don’t come without consequences. Marketers can probably cope with managing brand reputation. Quite how they tackle the political fallout is less certain.