Food companies sue one another all the time when they are feeling competitively threatened, so it’s no surprise that Unilever is now suing Hampton Creek over calling its eggless spread mayonnaise. Hampton Creek’s Just Mayo, which is made with yellow pea protein, is taking the retail market by storm and now eating into sales of Unilever’s Hellmann’s and Best Foods mayo brands.
Unilever clearly understands the sales momentum Hampton Creek is building with its Just Mayo Brand. What the multinational food conglomerate seems to have missed, however, is just how popular Hampton Creek has become because of its mission to create healthier, more affordable plant-based foods. Hampton Creek is backed by Bill Gates and others who believe the company represents the future of food, and the company’s popularity is quickly a fueling a backlash against Unilever over the lawsuit. More than 10,000 people have already signed celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern’s online petition asking Unilever to “stop bullying” Hampton Creek.
In its lawsuit against Hampton Creek, Unilever is asking Hampton Creek to pay “three times its profits in damages” plus Unilever’s legal fees, as well as halt using a picture of an egg on its label and recall all promotional content that “might confuse consumers,” the New York Times reports.
Unilever seems to be basing its case on the fact that Hampton Creek’s Just Mayo doesn’t meet the FDA’s definition of mayo, and it may end up that the courts rule in Unilever’s favor. Yet, even if Unilever wins its lawsuit the company is already losing in the court of public opinion, as Zimmern’s petition illustrates.
Hampton Creek is on the right side of food history right now, and companies that try to derail its momentum all in the name of protecting market share and corporate profits are going to feel the wrath. Rather than sue Hampton Creek, I believe Unilever—which has stated its own mission of creating a more sustainable supply chain through responsible sourcing—would have been much better off in the long run trying to find a way to either partner with Hampton Creek or at least use the company’s success as inspiration for building its own business around the growing popularity of plant-based foods.
After all, Hampton Creek is considering an “open source” approach to sharing its plant research data with other food companies. The best food companies of today and tomorrow will use this type of collaborative, “do it for the world” approach to growing their businesses versus trying to sue their way to success.
Can competing companies be friends instead of foes in today's food industry?