Thursday, March 4, 2010

There's no hiding place on the web

Yesterday, my wife came home from Whole Foods with a box of Back To Nature California Lemon Cookies. They're made with 100% natural ingredients, have really nice packaging that's made from 100% recycled paper, support the Nature Conservancy and they're pretty darn tasty.

I was reading their story on the package and saw their 50 year heritage, then looked at the short ingredient list on the label when I noticed the line "Distributed by: Back To Nature Foods Company, Madison, WI 53704 USA"

Now, I lived in Madison for 17 years, worked in advertising and knew just about every company in town that I might like to do business with. This is definitely one of them. So how is it that I never heard of them?

It turns out Back To Nature was quietly purchased by Kraft Foods in 2003 and based on the address on their website, the business is run out of Kraft's Oscar Mayer headquarters in Madison. But you'd never know that by looking at the package.

It's a smart move by Kraft on a couple of fronts. First, putting Back To Nature in Madison, a town that boasts more Birkenstocks and bicycles per capita than just about any other place in the country gives the brand tons of counterculture cred. Second, downplaying the fact that it's a Kraft brand keeps the stink of corporate food off of it.

But still, this feels funny to me. Like they're hiding something. Especially when I read some of the consumers comments on their website, like this one from Kathy in PA...

"Incredible! 1,000x's better than Kraft chem-chem mac/cheese. I keep the single-serving cups at work. Just a microwave, water, and couple minutes gives you...presto...210 calories of heavenly satisfaction!"

It's pretty clear people have no idea that Kraft owns Back To Nature and think it's run by a small cadre of true believers who are using natural and organic ingredients and being good corporate citizens. My fear is that when they find out that Back To Nature is a division of Kraft and run out of the very same building where they make Oscar Mayer hot dogs, bologna, pimento loaf, and Lunchables, there will be some backlash.

Lying to your consumers is never a good idea, even a lie of omission. I'll be watching to see how this one plays out.


  1. Hey Harvey, Van here. I'm working on Cascadian Farm, an organic foods company, bought by General Mills. We've talked about transparency and how important it is to be upfront. General Mills is helping Cascadian Farm reach the masses. Let's not hide that fact and let's get everyone eating organic foods. Kraft is in for a big bowl of backlash.

  2. I reminds me of my tobacco days. Vigliante consumers would announce to me, a lowly sales rep, that they ban all Philip Morris USA products. I looked in their cart and saw Tombstone pizza, Tolberone chocolate, General Foods International Foods, and thought... wow, you don't read the annual report, do you? At the time they would have had to boycott 30% of the grocery store. There are strange alliances around us that change all the time. Kraft is smart to be quiet, but they probably have plans to buy and sell something else next week.

  3. Burt's Bees is owned by Clorox, Naked juice is owned by Pepsi, and Stone Mill Pale Ale is crafted by Michelob. Every single one of these companies should be proud of their organic/whole foods brands. I'll be watching, too. Curious to see what the thinking was, and which strategy proves to be smarter.

  4. I think these brands should be leading the charge to better, healthier, more sustainable initiatives and find ways to take credit for them. Clorox has been especially upfront with their new line of cleaners. I know there's a risk at limiting the upside by connecting the natural brand to the master brand. But I think the downside risk to trying to hide it is much greater.