I took the photo recently on the main railway station in Munich. I am digging it out again because I have been contemplating the DOLE position vis a vis the Oxfam report on banana plantation ethics. On one hand, here is DOLE trying to position its fruit at the sustainable/ethical/credible end of the supply spectrum. On the other hand, CHIQUITA is busy trying to break out from the produce shelf, aiming its offer direct at the consumer.
There is a common theme here. Both companies have built up considerable brand equity in their brand over the decades. Naturally, when one is in such a position, one can be forgiven for looking for arising commercial advantages. In both cases, it involves a positioning exercise with the consumer. Which approach is more plausible do you think? Saying to commuters, “hey look, you can also trust my brand when it comes to buying quality and healthy fruit, fruit snacks and juices for you to eat on your train journey” – or telling shoppers, “we believe we are good corporate citizens and are prepared to tell you that by way of a label to that effect on each bunch of fruit?”
I don’t actually think a straight comparison is possible…but both efforts would not have been undertaken lightly because no business owner goes and deliberately exposes his brand to unnecessary risk. Any new development or initiative undertaken in companies with a high degree of brand equity will sooner rather than later trigger the question, “Do we fully understand how this possible decision would impact on our brand?”
So at the very least , we need to assume that DOLE has not rushed like a headless chicken into a situation where they issue labels which blatantly provide incorrect information. A more likely scenario is this: DOLE would have over the years invested considerable sums into improving the working environment on the banana farms and through that the living standards of employees. Results would have been measurable, prompting the DOLE marketing department to come up with the label approach. The marketing guys would not have had any qualms about this approach, because they believed the results were visible and the campaign justified.
Unfortunately, the discerning first world consumer with a bend towards sustainability, fair trade, political motivation and a transfer of wealth from developed to developing nations cannot agree that the level of positive changes achieved warrant the label and the campaign. Particularly in New Zealand where three vocal people can represent a pressure group which Government is prone to listen to. On any topic…not just bananas.
Then there is the small matter that the charity crying wolf about DOLE’s label happens to be supporting a competing banana project… where are the ethics in that?
In the meantime, DOLE has done the decent thing and suspended the use of the label.
If my attitude towards marketing managers sounds a bit cynical – I remember a Foodtown marketing manager who had a giant guillotine built for a TV commercial. He parked the monstrosity at the top of the Whangaparoa Peninsula cliffs, and filmed cabbage and other unsuspecting produce being chopped in half and chucked down the cliff onto the beach in an attempt to convince customers that produce prices had been permanently reduced…Needless to say, the campaign was a total flop.
And I will, by the way, read the Oxfam report and comment more in due course.