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Dispensing Strategies: Lemmings

Lemmings


June 16, 2008
By Michelle Brisebois

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There is a small rodent called the lemming. Urban legend has it that an
entire colony of lemmings will follow the lead lemming over a cliff to
their deaths – without hesitation or question.

There is a small rodent called the lemming. Urban legend has it that an entire colony of lemmings will follow the lead lemming over a cliff to their deaths – without hesitation or question.
 
Sometimes in business, we act like lemmings. Perhaps it’s in our reaction to a consumer trend or pressure from a small, but vocal, special interest group. The low-carb craze, trans fats, and removing soft drinks from school vending machines are all recent examples of industry issues that have sent us scrambling to react.
 
But how do we separate fact from fiction?

How do we stop being so focused on reacting to issues and get back to being proactive? Does the latest media release still send us “over the cliff”?

One reason that the vigilante consumer has ascended in power is the Internet. This tool has allowed all of us to have a voice; web logs are rising as one of the fastest growing forms of electronic communication. A web log is an Internet diary allowing the user to create a web page where each day (or as often as the mood strikes them) the “blogger” can post a discussion on whatever subject the author desires.
 
The Pew Research Centre in the U.S. estimates 8.8 million of U.S. adult web users have a blog. This same study estimates that 8-14 million Americans read web logs regularly.
 
Blogging allows each of us to pull up the old orange crate and share our opinions with the world. What makes “e-ranting” more dangerous is that the author is allowed to hide behind the anonymity of a keyboard without the benefit of a sober second look (thank goodness for editors) to ensure that the reporting is factual and sound.
 
Most blogs are originally designed by their owners to discuss hobbies and other specific interests, but often they take on a political slant.
 
California lawyer Steven L Joseph launched lawsuits at McDonald’s and Kraft for using trans fats in their fries and cookies respectively. His concerns around this issue have been chronicled online at bantransfats.com. He first sued Kraft for not labelling trans fats. The lawsuit was based on the premise that the existence and danger of trans fat is not common knowledge, especially as it is not listed on the Nutrition Facts label, and very few children are aware of it. Mr. Joseph requested no money in the lawsuit. He withdrew the suit when media attention meant that awareness of the issue had been raised. By the time the suit was withdrawn, Kraft had announced plans to address the trans fats issue.
 
Joseph next zeroed in on McDonald’s, pointing out that the company had broken their promise to decrease the use of oils with trans fats to fry their French fries.
 
It’s important to note that both Kraft and McDonald’s have recently led the way in developing healthier options for their customers. It’s also important to understand the dynamics of the pressure that got these companies to change course. Trans fats appear to be a topic worth focusing upon, but what about those causes that are rooted in less noble sentiments?

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Kraft foods found themselves squarely in the pot again this past spring when their line of Trolli Road Kill Gummi Candy came under fire from New Jersey animal rights activists. The gummi candy shaped like flattened snakes, chickens and squirrels came complete with tire treads through the centre of the candy. Kraft, in response to threats of a letter writing campaign, announced it was taking the product off of the market.
Assuming that the animal rights group objected to the fact that the gummi-animals were depicted as being dead prior to consumption, I have to wonder if they were ok with kids consuming animal candies without tire treads – in other words, still alive. Look out animal crackers!

There may have been mitigating business issues that prompted Kraft to take the path of least resistance, but it’s indicative of a troubling trend towards a small, vocal group of consumers dictating the boundaries around
innovation.

Reacting appropriately to the next “issue de jour” is really about looking at the root cause. The trans fats controversy appears to have its base in “informed” consumer activism and governments are listening – therefore it’s one worth monitoring closely.
 
Those issues based on emotion are worth a second sober look. Read with skepticism – is the report backed up with medical studies and hard data or is it rooted in opinion and hearsay?
 
Try signing up for electronic newsletters that summarize trends and industry news. Bakeryandsnacks.com is an excellent wesite to visit to keep on top of the current events impacting our industry. Check out foodnavigator.com, which communicates breaking news impacting the food industry from around the world, while foodnavigator-usa.com focuses on North American issues. Also take a look at the Baking Association of Canada website (bakingassoccanada.com) as well as the Dieticians of Canada site (dietitians.ca).
 
We need to remember that panicking along with the consumer isn’t going to help them – it’ll probably confuse the issue. While that lead lemming may have felt passionately about their divine right to assert their opinion, it didn’t mean they were leading everyone in the right direction.

Michelle Brisebois is a marketing professional with experience in the food, pharmaceutical and financial services industries. She specializes in brand strategies. Michelle can be reached at briseboismichelle@sympatico.ca.


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