Brand Transparency Doesn’t Always = Honesty

In catching up with my reading, I ran across an article by John Rooks in LOHAS Journal, a printed companion piece to the LOHAS movement (Lifestyles of Health & Sustainability), printed once a year in the spring.  The timing was eerie.  I read Rooks’ article “Authenticating Real,” the same day that I received the annual report and voting proxy from Dean Foods, who acquired Silk Soymilk  while I was head of marketing for the brand.

Silk used to be the poster child of the organic and customer social responsibility movements.  With an 80% market share during my tenure, growing to the largest organic brand in the world, being one of the first food companies to sponsor NPR nationally and the largest business at the time to switch entirely to wind power, the brand was “real” in Rooks’ definition: transparent, third-party certified and its culture rooted in cause marketing.

The same could be said today of the Silk brand.  But the marketplace has deserted the product, Whole Foods Markets has cleared its shelves of all but ancillary products in the brand portfolio and it’s the naughty child of the sustainability movement. 

How could such a brand lose so much, so quickly?  Most natural foods companies succeed because their people are passionate not only about selling the product, but mission and core values won’t be sacrificed.  A couple weeks ago I wrote blogpost: Capturing Lightening in a Bottle, about natural companies who don’t consider strategy and marketing in the mix.  They fail because passion isn’t always enough to be successful.  The opposite is true, too.  Strategy and profitability have to align with the target market and it’s core values.  In the case of Silk, they didn’t.

A few years ago, the brand management team decided to change Silk products from organic and natural to simply natural, for cost and profitability reasons.  They quietly dropped the term “organic” from the packaging, erased it from the website and started communicating the “natural” message.  This change escaped most people’s attention (including mine), until an “organic” line of Silk was introduced in 2008.  Most of us who worked on Silk were astounded when we asked the brand team what was different about the new “organic” line and were told that legacy Silk products hadn’t been organic for a while and now a higher-priced, organic-again line was being introduced.  They claimed the marketing had been transparent about it–changing all the right text and complying with their certification agency.  But as John Rooks points out, “‘… ‘real’–the thing that makes us and our companies tick–is outside of language.”  He goes on to say “This is a flaw of authenticity, for it has no substitute or workable symbol.”

Silk marketers stuck to the letter of the law, but broke trust with their consumers.  Since then, the fall of the brand has shown what most of us discovered in grade school: when you break a promise, people stop trusting you–even your best friends.  

If you haven’t seen the 2011 LOHAS Journal, get a copy and read “Authenticating Real,” by John Rooks–it’s very well written and thought-provoking.  In addition to the three tenets of being “real” that Rooks mentions, I’d add a fourth: honesty.  You can still be transparent and alienate your customer base because you’ve betrayed their trust, but it you’re truly honest in your intentions and actions, your authenticity is palpable to your customers.

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