Running Scared, Food Giant Blunders With Silly Lawsuit Over Vegan Mayo

Have you been following the Big Mayonnaise War that broke out last week? Unilever, the maker of market giant Hellmann’s mayonnaise filed suit against vegan start-up Hampton Creek over its mayonnaise substitute, Just Mayo.

Why? Because it’s not mayonnaise, which is precisely what it’s not supposed to be. Confused? Don’t worry, a lot of people are. What’s really interesting, though, is the significant public relations gaffe this has become for Unilever.

By filing this lawsuit, Unilever handed Hampton Creek a boatload of positive publicity that money just can’t buy. On top of that, Unilever garnered for itself multiple major media headlines mocking the lawsuit in a variety of ways. Clearly, this legal maneuver was not the smartest marketing tactic.

Blatantly Misleading or Exactly What it Claims to Be?

Did you miss the underlying story of Hellmann’s vs. Just Mayo? Pull up a chair. Stupid lawsuits are fun to watch, so you need to know what’s going on here. On the surface, it’s all about the legal definition of “mayonnaise.” Behind that allegation, it’s about preserving market share and forcing a smaller competitor out of the game.

justmayo

Photo credit: Hampton Creek

Hellmann’s, of course, is the mayonnaise king. It claims more of the $2 billion mayonnaise market share than any other brand. Despite this, Unilever is running scared. What’s it afraid of? The remarkable and growing popularity of Just Mayo. In just a year, Bill Gates-backed Hampton Creek’s flagship vegan spread has found its way onto shelves of major chains like Whole Foods, Safeway, Walmart, Target, Vons and Costco. That worries Unilever.

“We brought this lawsuit because use of the Just Mayo name blatantly misleads consumers,” Unilever told the Los Angeles Times in an e-mail. “In fact, the product is Just NOT Mayo as it does not contain one of mayonnaise’s key ingredients — eggs — in violation of the federal regulations that are in place to protect consumers.”

Buyers of vegan mayonnaise substitutes, are you misled? Do you think you’re buying an egg-based mayonnaise when you add Just Mayo to your shopping cart — or are you buying products like Just Mayo precisely because you are looking for a condiment that is not mayonnaise and uses no eggs?

What Is Mayonnaise? What Isnt?

The Food and Drug Administration’s official definition of what constitutes mayonnaise says it must include “[l]iquid egg yolks, frozen egg yolks, dried egg yolks, liquid whole eggs, frozen whole eggs, dried whole eggs, or any one or more of the foregoing ingredients listed in this paragraph with liquid egg white or frozen egg white.”

Just Mayo does not include the word “mayonnaise” anywhere on its labeling. I just looked, because I have a jar in my refrigerator like a lot of other vegans do. Rather, the label makes it pretty clear that it’s an egg-free, plant-based product.

Unilever’s entire argument seems premised on the name of Hampton Creek’s product. But is “mayo” legally the same thing as “mayonnaise”? If so, why isn’t another similar vegan condiment, Follow Your Heart’s “Vegenaise,” also included in this suit? Isn’t anything-”aise” just as confusing as anything “mayo”?

Photo credit: Thinkstock

No, this is all about Just Mayo’s popularity. Unilever’s complaint comes right out with it:

Hampton Creek’s literally-false name and its unsubstantiated superiority claims have already caused consumer deception and serious, irreparable harm to Unilever…. On information and belief, Just Mayo already is stealing market share from Hellmann’s.

Stealing market share? Is that what they call success these days? Just Mayo must be doing awfully well to get a major corporation this spun up.

When Getting Sued Is a Good Thing

Unilever says consumers are buying this product thinking they’re getting real mayonnaise. It’s much more likely, however, that most are buying Just Mayo because they’d rather have a plant-based alternative condiment that’s just as tasty as egg-based mayonnaise.

Oh, snap — better sue that company out of existence, eh? That’ll solve the problem.

Except it didn’t. The lawsuit not only didn’t make things better for Unilever, it made things so much worse. Soon after the case became news in early November, outraged consumers flocked to stores to make a statement with their wallets. It worked. On November 11, “more jars of #justmayo were sold today than any day in our history,” according to Hampton Creek’s Facebook page.

If this bullying tactic seems a bit familiar, you might be remembering the ongoing battle between Eat More Kale, the one-man Vermont t-shirt business, and fast food giant Chik-fil-A. In that matter, Chik-fil-A worried that customers who wanted to “eat mor chikin” would become “confused” by the phrase “Eat More Kale.” (Really, you can’t make this stuff up.)

Nobody likes a bully. Nobody likes a company that thinks its customer base is easily fooled, either. Deceptive marketing? No, this isn’t that. It really isn’t.

Its Not Just About the Name — Its About the Money

“This is big business,” Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick told The Wall Street Journal. “We’re competing directly with a company that hasn’t had real competition in decades. These things happen.”

Unilever’s complaint seeks more than to stop Tetrick’s company from calling its product “mayo.” It also wants all the jars off store shelves, all the profit the company made from this product, plus triple damages and attorney fees. As Hampton Creek prepares a countersuit, Tetrick says he sees a larger issue here.

“This is about something a whole lot larger than our advertising and speaks to the change we need in food production generally,” Tetrick told The New York Times. “We’ve got to figure out a way to solve the big problems like food’s impact on environment and health.”

Unilever, which likes to crow about sustainability, is doing itself a disservice with this approach. Just Mayo’s product has been called easier on the environment. According to Forbes: ”The ratio of energy input to food energy output for chicken-laid eggs is about 39-to-1, behind only beef and lamb farming. Hampton Creek’s plant products maintain a ratio of 2-to-1.”

Better yet, no chickens had to suffer to produce eggs for this spread. No male baby chicks had to be ground alive because they will never produce eggs. By the way, Unilever, you were winning some of us over with your recent pledge to find a way to end the egg industry’s need to kill all those baby chicks. Why did you mess that up?

chick

Photo credit: Thinkstock

As EatDrinkPolitics’ Michele Simon wrote, “[I]nstead of putting the company’s massive resources toward cleaning up its own act, Unilever has instead chosen to attack a competitor that has solved the problem.” Indeed.

Ready for a laugh? After the suit was filed, says Fortune magazine, Unilever’s Global Vice President of marketing sent Tetrick an email that read, “Love what you are doing…Very much in line with our Unilever Project Sunlight #brightfuture philosophy.”

Really? What’s that pesky lawsuit all about then, Unilever?

Do you want to let Unilever know just how ridiculous you think this fight is? If so, please sign and share this petition. Care2 will see it gets delivered to Unilever’s president and CEO so the company will know exactly how you feel about what’s going on.

Photo credit (main image): Thinkstock

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