Startup Gains Exposure Thanks to Unilever Suit

Christine Birkner
Marketing News Weekly
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Hampton Creek Foods
Key Takeaways
  • ​On Oct. 31, Unilever, maker of Hellmann's and Best Food mayonnaise, filed a lawsuit against Hampton Creek Foods alleging false advertising based on the name of the startup's primary product, Just Mayo, an eggless mayonnaise substitute.
  • Unilever claims that the name Just Mayo is inconsistent with the FDA's definition of mayonnaise as a mixture of vegetable oil, vinegar or lemon juice and egg yolks.
  • Coverage in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time, ABC News, NBC News and NPR has raised awareness of Hampton Creek and its mission of creating sustainable food products.

Going toe to toe in the courtroom with one of the world’s leading CPG companies didn’t factor into San Francisco-based startup Hampton Creek Foods’ original marketing plan, but the three-year-old company has garnered increased brand recognition nationwide thanks to a still-pending lawsuit.

On Oct. 31, 2014, London- and Rotterdam-based Unilever, maker of Hellmann’s and Best Foods mayonnaise, filed a lawsuit against Hampton Creek alleging false advertising based on the name of the startup’s primary product, Just Mayo, an eggless mayonnaise substitute made of yellow peas that’s designed to be more sustainable and environmentally friendly than regular mayonnaise.

In the lawsuit, Unilever states that the name Just Mayo is inconsistent with the FDA’s definition of mayonnaise as a mixture of vegetable oil, vinegar or lemon juice and egg yolks. Unilever also alleges that Just Mayo, which, over the last year, has garnered nationwide distribution in Wal-Mart, Kroger, Safeway, Costco and Whole Foods stores, is stealing market share from Hellmann’s and Best Foods.

In an e-mailed statement to Marketing News Weekly, a Unilever spokesman said: “Our concern here is not about innovation. It is about misleading labeling, as it is simply not accurate to label the Hampton Creek product as 'mayo.’ In contrast, our Hellmann's brand is made from real eggs. … We simply wish to protect both consumers from being misled and also our brand.”

According to Allison Zieve, general counsel and director of the litigation group at Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy group, who specializes in food labeling and consumer law, it’s a  legitimate legal claim. “The FDA has defined a few foods that set forth regulations on what the food is, and mayonnaise is one of them,” she says. “It has eggs. Unilever has a pretty strong argument on the question of whether the product was deceptive. If you sell margarine, you can’t call it butter.”

The case is similar to a lawsuit that pomegranate juice maker POM Wonderful filed against Coca-Cola last year over the use of the word “pomegranate” on the label of Coca-Cola’s Pomegranate Blueberry Minute Maid juice blend, a product that contains only 0.3% pomegranate juice. In June 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of POM, saying that it could proceed with the litigation in lower courts, where it is still pending.

Josh Tetrick, founder and CEO of Hampton Creek, believes that Unilever will withdraw the lawsuit, but if it doesn’t, he says that Hampton Creek will file a countersuit. “On the legal side, we feel good about where we are, being on the right side of it,” he says.

Regardless of the legal outcome, the lawsuit has been a PR boon for Hampton Creek, Tetrick says. Coverage in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time, ABC News, NBC News and NPR has raised awareness of the company and its mission of creating sustainable food products. “It’s been unbelievable,” he says. “The attention, the people who know Hampton Creek now who didn’t know us before, it’s mind-boggling. … We’re a company that’s very mission-based, and we want more people to hear about it, and now they certainly have.”

The company has received 85,000 messages of support on Twitter and Facebook, according to Tetrick, and after the lawsuit was filed, TV chef and food personality Andrew Zimmern also started a petition on Change.org urging Unilever to “stop bullying sustainable food companies,” which has garnered more than 45,000 signatures. 

“If you look at the true definition of mayonnaise, Just Mayo doesn’t meet those qualifications, but Unilever’s approach is going to work against them,” says Anita Nelson, president of IN Food Marketing, a Minneapolis-based food marketing agency. “If Unilever is losing market share, I can understand why this would be a tempting way for them to go, but given the environment today and consumers’ general backlash against ‘big food,’ it’s not working. It’s a David and Goliath type of thing. Consumers are going to be empathetic to a smaller company, and empathetic to a company that has a sustainable approach. It’s only going to work in Hampton Creek’s favor.”

Unilever has tested its own version of eggless mayonnaise in the past, but Tetrick nixes the idea of Hampton Creek ever being acquired by Unilever. “We’re on the path to being a public company, ourselves. Our point of view is really different, and it’s unique to us. We want to remain an independent company, and it’s probably more fun to be.”

For more on Hampton Creek Foods, check out “The Good Egg,” from the September 2013 issue of Marketing News.

This article was originally published in the Nov. 4, 2014, issue of Marketing News Weekly.​

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Author Bio:

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Christine Birkner
Christine Birkner is the senior staff writer for Marketing News and Marketing News Weekly. E-mail her at cbirkner@ama.org.
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