Burt’s Bees was started in Dexter, Maine, in 1984 by Burt Shavitz, a beekeeper, and Roxanne Quimby. Their lip balm and other natural products were an offshoot of Burt’s backwoods honey business.
Similarly, Tom and Kate Chappell decided to make and sell the first natural toothpaste, Tom’s of Maine, in rural Kennebunk in 1975. They started with a $5,000 loan and the philosophy that their personal care products would not harm the environment. (See post.)
In Santa Cruz, George Steltenpohl and two fellow musicians, Gerry Percy and Bonnie Bassett, launched Odwalla from a shed in Steltenpohl’s backyard in 1980. Their idea — selling fresh fruit juice and giving back to the community.
Many consumers are drawn to brands that stand for something other than profit-making. Called affinity brands, they inspire a community of diehard evangelists, drawn by a common cause or set of values. It’s an enthralling concept — the little guy fighting the good fight. (For more on affinity branding, see post on Patagonia and its founder, Yvon Chouinard.)
But what happens when an artisan brand sells out? (And many do.)
- Burt’s Bees sold in 2007 for $925 million to Clorox.
- Tom’s of Maine sold in 2006 for $100 million to Colgate-Palmolive.
- Odwalla sold in 2001 for $181 million to Coca-Cola.
- Ben & Jerry’s sold in 2000 for $326 million to Unilever.
- Naked Juice sold in 2006 for $450 million to PepsiCo.
- Kashi cereals, the favorite of millions of healthy breakfast eaters, sold in 2000 for $32 million by Kellogg.
A case can be made for spreading the gospel by going big. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Gene Kahn, founder of Cascadian Farm, is quoted as saying, “You have a choice of getting sad about all that (selling) or moving on. We tried hard to build a cooperative community and a local food system, but at the end of the day it wasn’t successful.”
Cascadian Farm is now owned by General Mills, where Kahn is the global sustainability officer. “I wanted to leverage that position to redefine the way we grow food — not … how we distribute it.”
Yet, while taking advantage of the distribution channels, buyers often keep quiet about their acquisitions so as not to upset the brand loyalists.
In a post at AlterNet, Lara Christenson of Spins, market researchers for the natural products industry, says, “There is frequently a backlash when a big cereal package-goods company buys a natural or organic company. I don’t want to say it’s manipulative, but consumers are led to believe these brands are pure, natural or organic brands. It’s very purposely done.”
Can conglomerates maintain the values held by the original brands while expanding distribution? Can they do so while being transparent about ownership? Are consumers open-minded to this possibility?