‘I Say It’s Spinach ...’
On Dec. 8, 1928, The New Yorker ran one of its most famous cartoons drawn by Carl Rose with text by E. B. White. It depicted a small child eating dinner. The caption:
Young mother: “It’s broccoli, dear.”
Young daughter: “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.”
Recently, I’ve been buying bagged spinach and either microwaving it in the bag or sauteing it with a ton of garlic.
Great stuff, until nearly 200 people in 26 states became seriously ill with E. coli from tainted bagged spinach supplied by Natural Selection Foods in California’s Salinas Valley. At least one person died and 29 others had kidney failure.
From a public health point of view, the story is E. coli.
In the world of marketing, this is all about brand protection.
Musings of a Naïve Consumer
I work at home, so I do the grocery shopping. Bagged spinach and salad greens make me feel good. For example, the bagged romaine hearts from Earthbound Farms were terrific—no outer leaves to discard, dated for freshness, keeps fresh in the bag. What’s more, these are for sale at the local Super Fresh (an A&P subsidiary) and Whole Foods six blocks away. Whole Foods is a class operation; any product with a Whole Foods imprimatur is fine by me.
I always preferred Earthbound to Dole. Ever since I was a kid I thought of Dole pineapples coming from Hawaii. If Dole produce comes from Hawaii, I reasoned, it takes a long time to get here, so Earthbound must be closer and fresher.
What’s more, “Earthbound” sounds crunchy, organic and natural with no chemicals. Do I pay more for Earthbound? I assume so. Everything at Whole Foods seems to cost more.
Once in a while I go to Trader Joe’s across town and pick up Trader Joe’s brand bagged spinach or salad greens.
I considered myself a fairly savvy consumer/shopper.
As Miss Piggy might say, “Silly moi!”
The Food and Drug Administration announced that the following 30 brands were recalled for possible E. coli contamination from the Natural Selection Foods plant in San Juan Bautista, Calif.:
Natural Selection Foods, Pride of San Juan, Earthbound Farm, Bellissima, Dole, Rave Spinach, Emeril, Sysco, O Organic, Fresh Point, River Ranch, Superior, Nature’s Basket, Pro-Mark, Compliments, Trader Joe’s, Ready Pac, Jansal Valley, Cheney Brothers, D’Arrigo Brothers, Green Harvest, Mann, Mills Family Farm, Premium Fresh, Snoboy, The Farmer’s Market, Tanimura & Antle, President’s Choice, Cross Valley, and Riverside Farms.
It’s all the very same spinach. The only difference is the names on the bags.
When it’s all the same stuff, individual brands are suddenly meaningless.
Outside Forces Can Damage a Brand
In 2005 Wendy’s was the subject of huge negative publicity when a woman claimed she found the end of a human finger in her bowl chili at one of the Northern California restaurants and sued the chain for $2.5 million. She turned out to be an extortionist who planted the finger, but not before sales nosedived 60 percent to 70 percent and a number of employees were furloughed. This was a case of sabotage and criminal mischief. Wendy’s was in no way responsible and the victim of bad luck. The only lucky break was that Wendy’s corporate slogan wasn’t “Finger lickin’ good.”
Corporate Greed and Incompetence Can Damage a Brand
In the mid-1990s, Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness tires on Ford Explorer SUVs were overheating on highways, resulting in tread separation and a series of horrific crashes that killed 135 people worldwide and injured 250 more. In her U.S. Senate testimony in September 2000, Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook accused Ford and Firestone of covering up “safety problems with the tire/SUV combination for a decade.”
This past week, the tally of Sony-supplied laptop batteries being recalled reached 10 million, because they overheat and catch fire. While the financial hit to Sony may well reach $500 million, buyers of laptops will certainly steer clear of the affected brands—Dell, Apple, Toshiba and Lenovo (née IBM ThinkPad)—until this mess is resolved, knocking sales projections into a cocked hat. What did Sony know, and when did it know it? Why were the technical people at these affected brands asleep at the switch? Or were they all told to shut up and hope the problem would remain under the radar screen?
Loss of Control Can Damage a Brand
This past week another brand took a hit. TV icon Dr. Phil McGraw—himself a brand just like Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart—settled $10.5 million in claims that he defrauded buyers who didn’t lose weight after using his Shape Up! diet supplements and candy bars. Dr. Phil entered the business in 2003, putting his name on products manufactured by CSA Nutraceuticals, of Irving, Texas. The program was sold in supermarkets, Wal-Mart and Target stores. In 2004, CSA ceased to manufacture the products in response to Federal Trade Commission allegations of false advertising.
Was it greed, ego, stupidity or altruism that caused him to get into the Shape Up! diet supplement and candy bar business? In a television studio, Dr. Phil has control of what’s going on. Working with his book publisher, Hyperion or Free Press, he can see the product in every step of its development. But when he signed over his name, his imprimatur and his photograph to a pill maker in Texas, he relinquished control and put his reputation and his business at risk.
For example, data enter into Google “Dr. Phil McGraw” AND “Shape Up” (using the quotation marks, so that only those exact words are searched), and in two-tenths of a second Google will come up with 90,800 pages in English, including all the dirt on the lawsuits and settlement.
Incidentally, you may have noticed that another television personality had a brand problem. Emeril was listed as one of the recalled brands of spinach.
The old saw that, “Yesterday’s newspaper is tomorrow’s bird-cage liner,” doesn’t cut it any more. The Internet is self-perpetuating and forever.
Loss of Control by Spinach Producers
Wendy’s, Firestone and Dr. Phil were single brands that had been jeopardized. The idea that 30 spinach brands were suddenly tainted and an entire industry (with the exception of canned and frozen spinach) was shut down because of a weak link in the processing and distribution chain is astounding.
Remembrance of Bankruptcies Past
Many years ago I remember a book warehouse in Bridgeport, Conn., went bankrupt and the judge ordered the building sealed. Dozens of small publishers, whose entire inventory was stored in the building, couldn’t fill orders or take returns even though they owned the merchandise. Several actually went out of business.
In the 1970s a client of mine published a weekly real estate magazine entirely made up of paid advertisements from housing developers in a central Florida community. He delivered mechanicals for the current week’s edition to the printer, whereupon the printer declared bankruptcy. As with the book warehouse, the judge ordered the plant locked with my client’s mechanicals inside. He was forced to pay back his advertisers, whereupon he went out of business.
Today, with the advent of print on demand technology, books can be stored in computers and printed as needed, eliminating the clumsy, expensive step of pallets piled high with books. And the computer has eliminated the need for artists’ hand-crafted mechanicals. If he had been working with a computer, my Florida client could have ordered a new set of film to be run and had his booklets produced by another printer.
But as in the spinach recall, it’s possible for a single failure by an outside supplier to play havoc with revenues, profits and brand.
On Friday, Sept. 29, 2006, the FDA declared spinach safe and stores began restocking it.