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Trends and Issues
June 05, 2009
Dear Hellmann's: Get Real!
Frame from Hellmann's own website.


The localvore movement is hot; social media is even hotter. So it comes as no surprise that many large commercial food manufacturers are trying to take advantage of both trends in order to roast the public. Yes, Hellmann's, we're so looking at you. 

Sure we know, not everyone can be an earnest small farmer selling from a card table at the local farmers market. And there is no reason to presume that just because a company is huge, even multi-national huge, that it cannot be inspired by the better vision for our food system that the grassroots gurus of the local, organic movements propose. It’s just that inspiration is a cart that can be steered in more than one direction, and eventually, everyone has to decide whether it's going to take them up the higher path where an investment must be made for change, or the opposite -- a quick run straight to the cash register.

Let's take a look at two large food companies who are using social media in radically different ways in order to harness the trend to "eat local".

Hellmann's Mayonnaise –  the Big Slather

Last week Hellmann's launched a campaign across the country designed to convince Canadian consumers that their industrially produced mayonnaise is all about the virtues of  “local”, and “real”. They seem to have bought into the idea that this can be accomplished not by any actual progressive action on their part, but merely by how noisily they go about saying it. The theory being, that if you keep hammering on the appropriate buzzwords long enough, eventually you can appropriate a concept to the point where the public will forget that it wasn't you who thought it up in the first place.

Consequently Hellmann's has a new slogan: “Eat Real. Eat Local.” They’ve set up a website called which parrots every carrot-hugging cliche in the book. They’re on Facebook and Twitter, encouraging everyone to use the #realfood hashtag (which then sends a message to everyone's friends and followers to go to the website). In a hilarious bit of overkill, they’ve even re-christened their public relations and marketing people as “advocates”.

Okay, but cutting through the green babble, what’s their message?  Apparently they have three things to offer us: 1) a patronizing lecture on the virtues of eating local; 2) stats from a phone survey which supports the revelation that people feel good about eating local food; and 3) a PDF of local resources that could have been, and probably was, ripped off the FarmFolk/CityFolk website.

Oh yes, they are also pledging to make a $25,000 donation to an eco charity if 100,000 people hit a pledge button on their website.  But least we forget: Hellmann's mayonnaise is a property of Unilever, a global food manufacturing conglomerate that according to Wikipedia, made $40.5 billion in revenue in 2008.  Twenty-five thousand is not exactly putting their bankroll in the jar. When it comes right down to it, $25,000 wouldn’t cover the lunch expenses of the creative whiz team who dreamed up this exercise; it wouldn't barely cover the budget for flying in the group of naive food bloggers who were wined and dined in Toronto while being hand fed the company line; and it most certainly couldn’t buy the opportunity to attach cookies to the computers of 100,000 highly targeted, permission accessed consumers. Need we mention it is also a tax deductible expense?

But aside from the observation that the coinage is hardly buying the right to appoint themselves as the movement's spokescompany, the glaring omission here is sufficient justification by Hellmann’s for associating its product with eating real and locally in the first place. That point gets a pretty quick gloss over. Other to say that the mayo is made from “real ingredients” (read the label and wonder how that translates), and that they buy their eggs and canola oil "in Canada", they don’t flag a lot of attention in that direction.

What companies like Unilever and Hellmann's need to understand is that they are not in the public education business. They are in the food producing business. They are in the food making business in such a big way that it determines what most of us have available to eat. If they sincerely want to help save the world, the best way they can make a contribution is to start by improving their own products.

Hellmann's we don't need you to sanction an idea; we need you to lead by example. Why not use some of those billions to reduce the egg factories from your supply lines; encourage production of non GMO canola oil crops; provide scholarships, grants or low interest loans to small family farms; subsidize local farmers markets; or at the very least, find ways to reduce the carbon emissions of your factories, warehouses and transport systems? Sorry, but you have to do more than just preach the green gospel to the converted. Before you can claim to "Eat Real" you need to "Get Real". You'd come across as less of a hypocrite if you put your new philosophy to work in your own house and then told us all about the progress you were making with THAT.

Here’s a better example of how a company with a wide food product distribution used social media to literally rethink the box and shorten the distance between producer and consumer.

Fresh QC - How's my picking?

Fresh QC is a method developed by Gary Wishnatzki, a strawberry distributor from Florida, who wanted to improve the accountability trail from his farm suppliers all the way to his end-using customers. By doing this he hoped to not only learn how to grow a better strawberry, but also how to reduce the carbon footprint of his entire produce distribution system.  But in the process, he also also created a way for a customer adding strawberries to his morning breakfast cereal to not only connect directly to the farm that grew them, but if need be, even to the very worker in the fields who did the picking.

Wishnatzki accomplished this via a 16-digit, bar-code system printed on a yellow sticker marked with the question: “How’s my Picking?” The stickers are uniquely numbered and attached to each carton of berries along with the web address. If a customer has a comment, question or concern he has the key to communicate instantly with the distributor (bypassing the grocery store), and Wishnatzky has the information he needs in order to trace the berries right back to the origin farm.

Since installation, the feedback about the berries has increased from 40 comments a month to about 800. It’s valuable data that Wishnatzki shares directly with the appropriate growers or suppliers to the point where they can even reward specific field pickers for superior work. Florida's St. Petersburg Times documented the whole story on their website and illustrated it with the excellent video here.

What Fresh QC is doing right as opposed to Hellmann’s is way it has chosen to utilize its customer base. Not as a sheeplike target market with obvious push buttons, but as an intelligent, questioning resource. By relating to consumers as individuals with a common interest in a better food product, they ultimately take a further step towards improving the world we all live in.  In other words, if social marketing is used by corporate industry to encourage genuine, one-to-one communication and cooperation between food consumers and food producers -- even at a large scale level -- it would go so much further towards making our food safe, healthy and above all, “real”, than any amount of bandwagon marketing rah rah. 

Related links:

Online Tool Helps Consumers Track Source of Food.

Truthiness and Real Food: Helmann's Get Your Paws of our Framing..

Eat Real. Eat Local .. Eat Hellman's?.
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Copyright Cityfood Magazine 2009