What’s in a name? Perhaps a big tax bill?

One of the great mysteries that keeps college students up all night is the question, “What is a Pringles?”

The answer to this question may cost P&G $160 million in taxes in the UK. 

This is a branding question as much as a legal question.  How do you describe your offerings?  Do you give them a descriptive name such as “potato chips” so that people will have an easy frame of reference, a simple analogy?  Or do you give them some fanciful name such as Pringles and self-define it?  Is it an iPod or an MP3 player?  

This is a conundrum that brand managers wrestle with all of the time.  How do I make it sound new while still giving people a familiar analogy so they can easily understand it?  In the movie business they do this all of the time.  We can just imagine the pitch meeting where the screenwriters say, “It’s a high concept file, like an underwater version of Star Wars.”  

Let’s see if we can get it right.  

Is Pringles a potato chip?  It certainly doesn’t resemble any potato chip I’ve ever seen.  Not even Ruffles with those ridges.  Potato chips are like snowflakes — no two are exactly the same.  But it says potato chips on the package!  At least it does in the US.

Is it some weird pressed-potato thingy?  After all, it stacks like poker chips.   And they are practically perfectly round clones of each other, as if there was some ur-Pringle and all others are genetically engineered copies.  And it’s not even 50% potato!  

In the US Pringles claim to be potato chips.  In the UK they claim to be a savory snack that is not a potato chip.  It’s the same product, yet two different descriptors.  And that is the crux of the problem.  If it is a potato chip it will be taxed in the UK at a higher rate.  If it’s a savory snack then P&G is off the hook.

It would be possible to do some market research and see if the associations that people co-create with Pringles are the same or similar to potato chips in general.  Maybe a ZMET metaphor elicitation study?  

The ruling has come from on high, the High Court in the UK, that Pringles are in fact potato chips or, as they say in the UK, “crisps”.  Therefore the $160 million in taxes due.

That may have settled the matter to the satisfaction of the UK legal and tax system.  But I, for one, will still mull this philosophical question, particularly when I’m on that post-midnight insomnia snack raid…

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