What happens when consumers discover that their favorite independent natural brand has been purchased by a conventional, corporate behemoth? By a company that, in some instances, has opted for profits at any cost, including our health?
They may abandon the brand or product. Or, they may purchase it on the sly—kind of like drinking a Starbucks while walking by a local artisanal gem that will top a fair trade Ethiopian roast with a customized frothy message, and whispering, "I'm sorry, I stopped on the way."
But, there's a third option. And one that few will admit to. They remain unabashedly committed to the said acquired brand. They come to terms with the potential challenges this company will face in order to maintain the loyalty of its core shoppers as it becomes a more mainstream option—a set of challenges very different from those that a small, independent, mission-driven brand experiences in its earliest stages, but challenges nonetheless. Will the new parent company compromise acquired company's values, formulations, authenticity? Only time will tell. Until then, where do you stand?
I recently faced this issue head on as I responded to a Delicious Living reader adamant that awarding Burt's Bees the Outstanding Classic Product or Company award in the 2016 Delicious Living Beauty & Body Awards was a crime. Or, at least a poor reflection of Delicious Living's values.
Here is what that reader wrote, and how I responded.
Just read the latest issue. Some good suggestions for beauty products, but I am having a really hard time understanding how you could justify highlighting Burt's Bees as an "outstanding" company and claim that it has "maintained its integrity." The first thing Clorox did was reformulate many original recipes to add soy and/or canola oil, most likely GMO derived. Then they donated millions to defeat state bills that would mandate GMO labeling. Giving a shout out to Alaffia, a truly compassionate company who saved lives through their fair trade model, is ignorant at best.
Thank you so much for your support of Delicious Living and for your feedback. We certainly understand and appreciate your thoughts on Burt's Bees. As in the food and beverage industry, acquisition is a big issue on our radar -- and certainly comes with a range of unique challenges (as well as opportunities). In the case of Burt's Bees, being able to meet such a high demand with the same formulations was one of those challenges. Burt's Bees is now available at Target, Walmart, CVS and more, acting as a sort of "gateway" natural brand for consumers who haven't typically used natural beauty products. With that said, the company is still committed to natural retail and remains a go-to for core natural shoppers. While initial expansion has led to some shifts, the company is committed to cleaning up its supply chain, improving formulas and more than anything bringing safer, better products to more people. I believe that the company, while not without flaws, is doing this well. And more than anything, with the passing of its founder, Burt's Bees deserves to be recognized as a trailblazer in the natural beauty space, regardless of its ownership structure.
As for Alaffia, we are SUCH fans of what the company does, and it has been the recipient of various beauty awards over the years, including the prestigious Industry Influencer award. We were excited to be able to recognize them again. I'd love to talk more about it, so if you're interested, please email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sincerely, Jessica.
As a longstanding member of the New Hope Network team, this was a hard pill to swallow (and not one that I necessarily thought would make us healthier like all those supplements I take every day). However, the message has already had a positive effect. It has made me think more about this decision, and all of the tough ones we will make both in our roles in media (which companies do we highlight, and which do we criticize?) and, equally importantly, in our roles as consumers (where do we spend our dollars, and which values should we support with our next purchase?).
Retailers, too, have to carefully consider this issue. Following the Burt's Bees correspondence, I got in touch with Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage, a company whose standards have raised the bar for trust and quality at retail. Vitamin Cottage continues to stock and support Burt's Bees.
There's no clear answer, no right or wrong way to tackle this increasingly complex issue. In this case, I stand behind my decision fully. But I appreciate the opportunity to dig deeper into why. What I can say is, let's not be so quick to judge a brand because of an acquisition. Let's look at the bigger picture impact, at how we can make our voices heard and at what we can do to support a thriving healthy products marketplace, as our New Hope Network rebrand represents. And let's do what we can to help acquired brands have positive influence over their parent companies.
So, a sincere thank you to that reader and to the many others who write to us. I respect and appreciate their many opinions and what they represent. Without the loud, strong voice of consumers, most of the positive changes we're seeing today in food and cosmetics would be but a whisper, a buzz.