Mayo madness: Have brands ‘lost the plot’ over purpose?

Many brands are grappling with sustainability and purpose.

They are topics that regularly come up in conversation with our clients who are increasingly wanting help telling sustainability stories.

And they are subjects delegates increasingly want to discuss during our media training courses.

But can there be too much focus on them?

Unilever has found itself in the firing line in recent days following stinging criticism from one of its investors about its focus on sustainability.

Terry Smith, founder of Fundsmith Equity Fund, called the policy “ludicrous” and singled out brands Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and Hellmann’s mayonnaise as examples of the flaws he feels exist in the approach.

“Unilever seems to be labouring under the weight of a management which is obsessed with publicly displaying sustainability credentials at the expense of focusing on the fundamentals of the business,” he wrote in a letter to investors in his fund.

“The most obvious manifestation of this is the public spat it has become embroiled in over the refusal to supply Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in the West Bank. However, we think there are far more ludicrous examples which illustrate the problem.

“A company which feels it has to define the purpose of Hellmann’s mayonnaise has in our view clearly lost the plot. The Hellmann’s brand has existed since 1913, so we would guess that by now consumers have figured out its purpose (spoiler alert — salads and sandwiches).”

That rebuke has been covered extensively in the media. And it has undoubtedly caught the attention of other leadership teams.

Investment star Terry Smith attacks Unilever for ‘ludicrous’ focus on social and green issues The Telegraph

Unilever has ‘lost the plot’ by fixating on sustainability, says Terry Smith Financial Times

Will it scare them off? Will companies begin to shy away from ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) issues?

Well, first, let’s think about what Mr Smith said about mayonnaise.


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You can understand why he singled it out. Only last year Alan Jope, Unilever’s chief executive, had said “Fighting against food waste - that is the purpose of Hellmann’s.”

Hellmann’s is also a household name. And it is easy to make fun of the idea people worry about the purpose of their favourite condiments.

But let’s say if it wasn’t focused on and openly discussing sustainability issues. It would then undoubtedly be under attack for the packaging it uses, food waste, potentially its ingredients, failing to raise awareness, and the healthiness of what is a high-fat product – all potentially damaging crisis communication issues.

It would be amiss of me not to point out that there is support for Mr Smith’s criticism amid the media coverage. A column in the Evening Standards argues he is right and that “sometimes mayonnaise is just mayonnaise”. It adds that “a balance must be struck between running a business and saving the world.

But, here’s the thing. Consumers seem to want more of the approach taken by Unilever and are looking for companies with purpose at their core.

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We are living in an age with a greater focus on environmental and societal issues.

And a time when trust in politicians and government is falling, people are increasingly turning to business to take the lead on the big issues.

The latest Edelman Trust Barometer shows people want more business leadership, and they want companies to show we can build a better future.

Almost 60 per cent of those who took part in the annual survey say they shop with brands based on their beliefs about the company. And a similar figure said the same factors decide where they will work.

But they want brands to go further - 52 per cent feel businesses are not doing enough to address climate changes, and 49 per cent want them to do more about economic inequality.

“Business must now be the stabilising force delivering tangible action and results on society’s most critical issues,” Edelman CEO Richard Edelman said. “Societal leadership is now a core function of business.”

The report also finds businesses and leaders must focus on long-term thinking rather than short-term gain.

And that suggests profits should not be put ahead of everything else.

Perhaps this has not been lost on Mr Smith after all. Despite his withering attack, he continues to own Unilever shares “because we think that its strong brands and distribution will triumph in the end”.

Hellmann’s, as Mr Smith pointed out, has been around for more than 100 years – telling compelling and meaningful sustainability stories is the best way to ensure it continues to enjoy the taste of success for years to come.



Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

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