Admittedly, I’m still rather unnerved about what I learned on Day 10 of the 30-Day Green Cat Challenge. Here I was happily buying Greenies and feeding them to my cat thinking that I was supporting a smaller company, and with that, came a sense of implied trust. I was SHOCKED to learn that this product I’d been using for years had been bought out by S&M Nu-Tec, owned by the Mars, Inc. conglomerate. Yes, the same people who make M&Ms, Uncle Ben’s, Whiskas and Sheba, are behind what I thought were healthy, sustainable, locally-produced snacks to clean my cat’s teeth.
A university colleague of mine once worked for Kraft Foods and from what I heard, it was all about delivering the same product as perceived by the consumer at the lowest price possible. The key was that they would use the lowest cost ingredients possible as long as the consumer didn’t really notice a difference. She swore off packaged foods pretty much immediately after working there.
In retrospect, I realize that there were clues that my beloved Greenies had changed ownership. I’ve been eating organic foods for over a decade, back when organic meant dirty, small and bug-infested. Before there was Whole Foods, I shopped at the little neighbourhood co-ops run by hippies, dimly lit with about 6 items on the shelves. I even ate at one co-op that was so “green” that I spied cockroaches running out of the salad bar. I stopped eating there after that, but I digress. The point I want to make is that I’ve been watching the changes in the industry as green and organic have gained traction with the mainstream. I’ve seen some of my favorite products bought out by large multinationals looking to add an eco-friendly product line to their portfolio.
In most cases, there were signs of change and usually they were always the same. So, I’m going to share with you the five signs of when ma/pop has sold out to a conglomerate.
- Brand Extension – These are holy words in product marketing. When a brand manager wants to grow sales, inevitably, they look at brand extension. How can they slap their brand’s name on more items? Think Crest Whitestrips, or whatever they’re called. In the case of natural pet products, watch out if your pet’s favourite brand suddenly comes out with several different flavours or new products. This happened with Greenies. First, there was just some green biscuit that I had to shave down. About a year or two ago, I noticed that it came in tuna, chicken, beef, etc. Now, they’re offering “Pill Pockets”. The same thing happened with Tom of Maine’s toothpaste. I think they used to have mint, cinnamon and some other weird flavour. Then one day, there was Tom’s with fluoride, peppermint, peppermint without fluoride, extra whitening, etc. There must have been a dozen different kinds and that was when I learned that they were bought out by Colgate.
- Repackaging – You may notice that the ugly dowdy packaging has been replaced with sleek and colourful graphics. The hand-drawn logo suddenly looks a little more stylized. With millions on the line, a good marketer knows that their product has to stand out on the shelf. Say good bye to the logo drawn by the founder’s “artistic” niece and hello to five star product design.
- Distribution – Remember when it was hard to find that little gem you discovered? You had to go find one of those still-existing hippie co-ops and reach down to the bottom shelf to pull out the second last bag of Kitty treats. Well, when the big conglomerate steps in, they leverage their distribution channels to get that product into mainstream stores. Let’s just say if it starts appearing at Wal-mart, you can be pretty sure it’s not likely to be ma/pop.
- Website Overhaul – Most companies have websites, but it is hard for a small business to find a talented web designer who can code, design and deal with their business needs. Actually, this is virtually impossible. Professional corporate websites are created by teams with each member having a very specialized niche that they excel in. Watch out when there’s a website redesign. For unknown reasons, all of the pet product sites tend to look the same. Colourful, cheerful graphics, a little Flash animation thrown in, and the top third of the page is a big photographic rectangle with a picture of an animal in it. Sometimes a product image or logo may take up a significant portion of the web page’s real estate.
- Tiny Text – Conglomerates can’t seem to resist announcing to the world that this green product they snagged is part of their company. I don’t know if it’s a legal requirement or if they think associating with a natural pet product will make people have warm fuzzy feelings for them. However, just look for some little text on the package or the bottom of the website that identifies a different company such as “division of” or “part of the XYZ group of companies”.
Now, I’ve thought about this for quite some time. Is it a good thing when a large conglomerate buys a natural product company? On one hand, they achieve economies of scale and efficiency. It’s probably more efficient for them to ship x thousand products using their distribution channels than for a thousand ma/pops sending products around in trucks that are 3/4 full. I’ve also considered that they’re bringing natural products to a mass market that might otherwise continue buying the non-eco-friendly versions.
Then, I wonder, how much of the integrity of the original product is maintained and for how long? At some point, can the parent company resist squeezing its subsidiary for more cash and ROI? Is it better that millions more people buy a slightly watered down version of a product vs. an environmental elite buying the “pure” product? I guess it really depends on whether it’s just another product in the portfolio or if the company is looking to overhaul their entire product line to be more green.
Well, obviously, you can read that I have a bias for supporting local businesses. I have a lot more faith in them sticking true to values than a head office looking to increase shareholder value. So, my action today is to look at the brands I buy, especially the green cleaning products reviewed in Day 17, and see if I can dig up who really owns them and runs them.
HOW YOU CAN TAKE ACTION
- Be aware and conscious of what you buy and where it comes from.
- If you’re wondering about a product you currently use, do some digging and let us know what you find by clicking the “Comments” link below.