How Mavericks Became Zombies

by Betty Fussell

celestial_seasoningsNames matter, as the marketer of any brand name knows well. But let’s separate living brands from dead ones. Dead ones are zombie brands that pretend to be live ones, that suggest the practices of the originating company but conceal the changes executed by new owners who hide behind the old familiar name. Are we still saving the rainforests when we eat Ben & Jerry’s ice cream? Not since it was bought by Unilever.

From the current marketing of brands you’d never know that the word “branding” comes from the practice of burning a mark with a hot iron into a hide, bovine or human, to claim ownership. It might be a cow, it might be a slave. A burned-in brand was supposed to mean “my property.”

That equation did not suit Samuel Augustus Maverick, who had both slaves and cows in the 19th century, when he acquired most of West Texas. His attitude was, “If I own it, I don’t need to brand it.”

During the time of cattle drives and roundups, before industrialization ended all the fun, the rule of the range was that any calf which became separated from its mother belonged to the first person to brand it. As we know, that allowed rogues, rustlers and cattle barons leeway to discover a remarkable number of unbranded calves (who became known as “mavericks”) and of already branded ones that they could alter the mark of right quick.

Outside the cattle world, “maverick” came to mean someone who didn’t play by the rules — an outsider, a loner, a cowboy like James Garner in the original Maverick of 1957. Today a genuine maverick company in the conglomerated food industry is one that keeps ownership of its good name. That is increasingly hard to do.

The gaps between brand name and ownership widen even as I write. Since the power of a brand depends entirely on a consumer’s associations with a particular name, it behooves the big boys to keep quiet when they buy up the little boys.

I learned this decades ago when Kraft Foods bought up a little hippie group in Colorado, which sold “natural herb tea” under the name “Celestial Seasonings.” The name and the packaging — especially the idyll of peace, love, dove evoked by a girl on a swing in a nature wonderland of butterflies and swans — have remained the same as the owners changed and changed again. News flash: The current owner has just announced on CelestialSeasonings.com a change of packaging at last: “A New Look Outside … the Same Celestial Magic Inside!” Nature’s still there but the girl is gone.

I did not learn enough, however, to keep from being gulled when I agreed for a brief time to be a spokesperson for Entenmann’s Baked Goods. Only near the end of my tour did I discover that the local Brooklyn bakery had been bought out by Warner-Lambert and then General Foods, a subsidiary of Philip Morris. I should have suspected something was afoot when Entenmann’s was advertising its doughnuts as good for you because they were “fat-free.”

Caveat emptor
, buyer beware, still warns against being fooled by deceptions like zombie brands. Take two examples in the meat world: Coleman’s beef and Niman’s pork. Coleman’s Natural Beef is owned by Meyer Natural Angus, Niman Ranch by Hilco. Both companies are in the commodity biz, but the brand marketing is all about the standards of excellence of the original owners.

This deception harms small independent companies like Heritage Foods and Ranch Foods Direct that have to compete with zombie brands. Even Shakespeare warned against trusting those who would brandish their names to conceal their true identities and motives. Two of his most dangerous villains, Iago and Shylock, each defended himself by declaring the virtue of “my good name.”

Here are a few websites that help track the corporate parent companies of  “organic natural” brands that began as “mavericks” in the industrial chain: Nutrition Wonderland, Endgame.org and the Organic Consumers Association. Of course the parents may be owned or controlled by other parents, like Hains-Celestial Group by Heinz. Corporate family trees are designed to discourage consumer trackers.

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Posted on May 28, 2009