Unilever’s Bullying Backfires, Boosts Hampton Creek

Negative media coverage of Big Mayo lawsuit goes viral in case study of PR blunder

All of these images were used in recent media stories of Big Mayo lawsuit

Business schools love a good case study, especially when a big corporation blows it. Now they can add Unilever’s colossal public relations mistake to their list. Wall Street Journal tech columnist Christopher Mims summed it up with this tweet: “Giant Corporation Generates Huge Quantities of Free Advertising and Brand Equity For Tiny Rival by Suing It”.

As I predicted earlier this week in my post about the maker of Hellmann’s suing start-up Hampton Creek over egg-free mayonnaise, the press and social media firestorm in just the past few days has already given Unilever a black eye, while the Just Mayo brand enjoys free positive PR. Almost all of the stories (of more than 200) I saw online were in Hampton Creek’s favor, framing the lawsuit as a classic David versus Goliath fight, at times mocking Unilever.

The Washington Post was perplexed, running the headline, “Big Food’s weird war over the meaning of mayonnaise” and calling the case “a strangely defensive stance for Unilever, a Big Food titan that made more than $64 billion last year selling foodstuffs in nearly 200 countries (including I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!, a spread that is not butter”).

Here are a few more examples of media hits:

  • The subtitle of the Fortune coverage was “Owner of Hellmann’s lashes out at a startup that is taking market share from the giant”
  • Forbes reported that “A big guy is suing the little guy, and someone is going to end up with egg on their face”
  • Time.com’s subhead read “In a David vs. Goliath battle over sandwich spread labeling, things could get messy”
  • The Politico headline read “Food Startup Battles ‘Big Mayo’ Amid Policy Push” and called Hampton Creek a “tiny Silicon Valley startup” (actually San Francisco)
  • The Los Angeles Times started its story with “Big Tobacco, Big Oil, now Big Mayo?”
  • The UK’s Daily Mail’s coverage began “It is a classic David and Goliath Fight”

Even business-friendly television outlets favored Hampton Creek over Unilever, including Morning Joe and CNBC’s Closing Bell, where the lawsuit was mocked by a host noting how the Mayo Clinic does not have egg in it either, so maybe Unilever will go after them next. While CEO Josh Tetick was explaining his company’s mission, the program ran background footage of cute children spreading Just Mayo on sandwiches.

Several stories also went out of their way to beat up on Unilever for poor economic performance. For example, the international business paper, Financial Times explained how Unilever’s food division “experienced a fall in sales in the first six months of the year.” The Wall Street Journal painted a contrast of the success of Hampton Creek with the decline of Unilever:

In less than a year, Just Mayo has landed shelf space in major retailers such as Whole Foods Market and Wal-Mart Stores, responding to consumer demand for foods perceived as healthier with simpler ingredients and better for animal welfare and the environment. The company expects Just Mayo to be sold in 39,000 locations by start of next year.

This paragraph was immediately followed by:

Unilever’s food business, which accounts for about 27% of its revenue, has struggled in recent years as it has focused on higher-margin personal-care products that appeal in emerging markets. In the last two years, the company has sold underperforming food brands including Skippy peanut butter and Ragu pasta source. In its most recent quarter, food was the only one of Unilever’s four divisions to have slower sales growth.

Just Mayo images splashed everywhere

Every story I saw also spoke glowingly of Hampton Creek’s financial backing and fast rise to success. Adding insult to injury for Unilever, almost every media outlet used pictures such as those above of the Just Mayo product or an image of the photogenic CEO Josh Tetrick alongside his Just Mayo brand, as did even the Wall Street Journal.

And this local San Francisco area TV news report shows lots of energetic activity at the startup’s facility. A story at BBC.com uses the subheads of “Horse and buggy definition” to describe FDA’s recipe for mayonnaise that Unilever relies on, and describes Hampton Creek’s response to the lawsuit: “Antiquated thinking won’t feed the world or strengthen the planet.” The article also shows this image from Hampton Creek’s website.

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In more free advertising, Business Insider used this image for its story.

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Further aiding Hampton Creek’s cause, many articles ended with a reference to the Change.org petition started by celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern, and several included the petition’s title, “Stop Bullying Sustainable Food Companies”. (The number of signatures now tops 24,000.)

A small company like Hampton Creek can’t pay for the positive press this lawsuit has generated. And according to their Twitter feed, they received 51,000 messages of support and most importantly, sales were higher than they’ve ever been. (Hampton Creek tweeted this picture of what looks like a Costco shelf showing Just Mayo almost sold out, right next to a full pallet of Best Foods mayonnaise.)

On my own blog post and on Twitter, several people responded by saying they had never heard of Just Mayo, but would now try it, some out of sheer spite. For example one said, “Because of a frivolous lawsuit I now have Just Mayo on my radar. Look forward to trying it.” And another, “Thanks Unilever. I had never heard of this Mayo, now I can’t wait to try it.”

Unilever’s media team MIA

Unilever compounded how much Hampton Creek owned the media by going radio silent. According to several news outlets and two reporters I spoke to, Unilever was non-responsive. See for example, the New York Times (“Unilever did not immediately respond Monday to requests for comment”), Forbes (“Officials at Unilever who were contacted by email did not respond to requests for comment”), and Fortune (“Unilever has not responded to requests for comment”).

On Monday, the Washington Post said “messages were not returned”, but then on Tuesday the paper added this emailed statement from a nameless and faceless Unilever spokesperson: “Our concern here is not about innovation, it is about misleading labelling. We simply wish to protect both consumers from being misled and also our brand.”

A pretty tepid response for the world’s second largest consumer packaged corporation. And it was too late.

The Washington Post also noted that “The suit comes at a touchy time for Unilever, which just launched an ad campaign promoting itself as devoted to sustainability.” Indeed, this week Unilever launched its “Project Sunlight”, which appears to be about child hunger, but I can’t tell what Unilever is doing about it except creating a nice website and ad campaign touting its previous donations. Talk about bad timing. A Google news search for “Unilever” results in only eight articles about Project Sunlight, compared to 265 mostly unflattering articles about the Big Mayo lawsuit.

And on Unilever’s Facebook page, Project Sunlight’s warm and fuzzy posts about child hunger are getting drowned out by angry comments reacting to the lawsuit. One suggests a better use of resources:

Unilever is stifling innovation and competition by suing a small smart-up which has developed a more affordable, sustainable Mayo than Hellmann’s. If Unilever were truly committed to causes like ending child hunger, perhaps they would have redirected the costs of this lawsuit that way rather than in pursuit of this frivolous claim.

Numerous commenters say they will no longer buy Unilever products. Here is one example:

If this lawsuit story is indeed accurate, I will purge my entire household of any Unilever product, make it a priority to never buy anything made by Unilever again, and tell every single person I know why. Petty is a fitting word to describe such a lawsuit.

In another sign the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick shared an email with Fortune that he received from Unilever’s Global VP of marketing just days after the suit was filed. It read: “Love what you are doing…Very much in line with our Unilever Project Sunlight #brightfuture philosophy.”

Unilever’s future is not looking so bright right now.

Failure to communicate

How did this happen? How did a huge company that decided to go on the offensive and file a lawsuit get caught unprepared by the resulting media firestorm, while a startup being accused of alleged wrongdoing was happy to talk to the press, ran with it, and came out looking like a hero?

The first rule of public relations is get out in front of the story to control the message. Unilever didn’t even bother to try. Perhaps the legal department filed the lawsuit and figured it would stay quiet, or just never even thought to run it by communications. The company’s lawyers filed the case in New Jersey federal court on October 31. That’s when the press release should have gone out, to tell their story first. Instead, Unilever let their target, who they claim is in the wrong, garner all of the media sympathy. And when asked for comment, Unilever still couldn’t be found, and when they finally did respond, it was weak. That’s failing public relations in three different ways: not being proactive, the dreaded refusal to comment, and then offering an ineffective response.

Perhaps it’s a sign of a corporation so huge that the right people don’t even talk to each other anymore. That nobody at Unilever anticipated this media reaction is also a troubling sign of being out of touch. Unilever executives should take a hard look inward. Time will tell if the company is able to recover from this massive PR blunder. Meanwhile, Hampton Creek can enjoy the bump, courtesy of Unilever. Self-inflicted wounds hurt the most.

19 Responses to “Unilever’s Bullying Backfires, Boosts Hampton Creek”

  1. Jennifer Campbell says:

    The points that Unilever think they are suing over are ridiculous. First they are saying that “mayo” insinuates that there are eggs in the product which very clearly on the front of the label it states it is dairy and egg free. Second the egg on the label has a plant through it still not claiming it has eggs. Third Unilever is saying that Hampton Creek is using “deceptive labeling” should Unilever talk about deceptive labeling? What about their before and after pics on beauty products or maybe the pictures of their food on packages that doesn’t look like that at all on the inside or even the fine print on packaging where they are hoping you wont look. Unilever has no leg to stand on with the boundaries they push they were probably just pissed when Hampton Creek wouldn’t sell out and are beating them in the market.

  2. I saw another mayonnaise in WholeFoods with the name “mayo” on the container. I honestly believe this is just a ploy to try to stop the success of Just Mayo. How selfish. Some people are eating Just Mayo because of health reasons or allergies. Reading the label is what prompted me to buy Just Mayo, not the name. I do not understand what Unilever believes will happen if they change their name. Mom my Instagram @it.yours.truly I have a photo of an empty Just Mayo container. My Non-Vegan husband ate all but 3 tablespoons of it by himself. I can assure you, it had nothing to do with the name that was in the bottle. Considering supply and demand, the more people that buy Just Mayo the higher the price will go – but in this case, I think it will be worth it to pay a few cents more.

  3. C Ranzolin says:

    Hopefully a Judge will see this for what it’s worth…nothing…and throw out this ridiculous lawsuit. Unilever should also pay any legal fees incurred by Hampton Creek. I buy Just Mayo and it is awesome. I tried it specifically BECAUSE it didn’t have egg in it. Obviously I wasn’t misled by their very clear “non egg” packaging. SMH

  4. Rob B says:

    You should focus on topics you know something about rather than making this about David and Goliath. The regulation is the regulation and Hampton Creek’s product doesn’t comply. Others have petitioned FDA to change the standard of identity for mayo/mayonnaise to no avail. In addition to eggs, Just mayo contains beta carotene and modified food starch. Colors that mimic the color of egg and thickeners like starch are also not allowed by the standard of identity.

    Hampton Creek’s product is Frankenfood compared to real mayonnaise. You would rather eat modified food starch, the same one used in non dairy creamers, by the way, than real eggs.

    • Mike says:

      Rob B, please tell me you’re joking.

    • Don Frye says:

      Hey Uniever, what’s with that Hollandaise sauce without eggs?

      http://i.imgur.com/0jE5YbW.jpg

    • Dennis G says:

      Yes, I’d rather eat poop than be part of the cruelty and suffering that chickens are forced to endure just so you can eat eggs!

    • Art says:

      Real eggs come from chickens fed hormones, chemicals and non-natural feed, making them (by industry choice) frankenchickens. Their eggs do not come from a natural system.

    • Allicia says:

      According to their own website, Hellmans Light Mayonnaise includes the ingredients: WATER, SOYBEAN OIL, MODIFIED STARCH (CORN, POTATO)**, EGGS, SUGAR, SALT, VINEGAR, LEMON JUICE, SORBIC ACID** AND CALCIUM DISODIUM EDTA (USED TO PROTECT QUALITY), NATURAL FLAVOR, VITAMIN E. **INGREDIENTS NOT FOUND IN REGULAR MAYONNAISE. GLUTEN-FREE.

      Are they going to stop labeling this as mayonnaise?

  5. Eric W says:

    Nice astroturfing there Rob B.

    There is no need to petition to change the definition of “mayo”, as the FDA does not have a standard of identity for it. Other plant based mayo use the same term, however they have not made an aggressive push towards regular consumers ad instead have stuck to the niche plant based market. HCF has cut into Unilever’s profits so they attack them, while leaving Follow Your Heart and other companies alone.
    This “frankenfood” as you call it contains less ingredients than Best Foods, is organic and GMO-Free.

  6. Mike says:

    I already wanted to stop purchasing Unilever products because they torture animals in labs.
    This is the nail in the coffin for me.
    I don’t care how inconvenient it might be, I’ll never purchase another Unilever product.

  7. Rob B says:

    Eric,
    I don’t care what Unilever’s motive is for the suit but I’d say Hampton Creek got bad advice. I guess we’ll see. So, to you, mayo isn’t mayonnaise. Then chick’n isn’t misleading people to believe it is chicken. http://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/04/03/business/meat-alternatives-on-the-plate-and-in-the-portfolio.html

    Follow Your Heart’s Vegenaise is labeled correctly and is not called mayo or mayonnaise. It is called dressing and sandwich spread.

    • Animalover says:

      Seems to me I recall that Big AgriBusiness-Milk-Dairy Industry got their knickers in a knot when the non-dairy soy, almond, rice etc. “milks”, “yogurts” “ice-creams” and “cheeses” began to cut into their market share. I don’t think that anyone raised a ruckus when dried, dead animal flesh called bacon, baloney (bologna), along with “shoulder” ,”ribs”, thighs,”wings”,”feet” became common usage for animal parts. Give it up!!!!!!

  8. Rob B says:

    Mike, just do your research on the ingredients in the alternative products you choose to buy. At some point in the past someone, maybe not the company you’re buying from, likely did animal testing on the thousands of ingredients that are used today in personal care products. No government rules on cruelty-free or no animal testing labels creates confusion for the consumer, huh?

    Maybe rules aren’t so bad :)

  9. Rob B says:

    Paul Polman…I mean Rob, you are probably one of the five people in the world that are defending Unilever. This will fail just as bad as it did when dairy companies tried to stop non-dairy milk from using the term milk.

    You also do not know how many personal care products made by many cruelty free companies are made. Most are made from very natural ingredients cultures have used for hundreds of years. There is no reason to test them. The Leaping Bunny is actually a third party label, which I personally feel better than having a corrupt government industry like the FDA.

  10. Don D. says:

    Hey Rob!
    How much stock do you own in Unilever? Or, better yet, do you work in their legal or PR department? No self thinking, reasoning, intelligent human being could possibly support Unilever in this, their embarrassing, frivolous lawsuit.

  11. Rob B says:

    Hellmann’s Light Mayonnaise complies with the regulation. Light is a qualifying term and has a regulatory definition so it is perfectly acceptable to label as light mayonnaise. Also, the ingredient statement lists “ingredients not normally found in mayonnaise” which is the qualifier that has been in use by the industry for years.

  12. Pete L. says:

    I’ll try a jar of Just Mayo (or is it Just Not Mayo?) and I’ll eat what I like. Every time I’ve tried some mayo other than Best Foods I’ve been disappointed. If it turns into something yucky before the jar is gone, it goes in the garbage. If I really like it maybe I’ll think they should call it Better Than Mayo.

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