Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Vegan Mayo Gate!

There’s a famous story about Ty Cobb that claims that, when he was starting out as a ball player, Cobb sent a series of telegrams to famed sportswriter Grantland Rice anonymously touting the prowess of one Ty Cobb. Cobb would probably have high-spiked his way into the pros anyway, but why leave anything to chance. 

There are companies devoted to getting your book on the New York Times best seller list, which might set you back over $200K. That’s a lot to pay for bragging rights but, hey, if you really need to promote “brand you”…

And speaking of brand you/brand me, there’s John Barron, a.k.a., Donald Trump, calling reporters to tout what a stud The Donald is.

You have to spend money to make money, right? (Unless you’re Trump.)

So we shouldn’t be all that surprised to learn that in 2014, vegan food startup Hampton Creek, hired a whole bunch of people to send their Just Mayo flying off the shelves.

In addition to buying up hundreds of jars of the product across the U.S., contractors were told to call store managers pretending they were customers and ask about Just Mayo. Strong demand for a product typically prompts retailers to order more and stock it in additional stores. (Source: Bloomberg)

Vegans cheating? Tsk, tsk. Is it just me or does this run counter the holier than thou, ethically attuned aura that so many vegans give off? (At least my vegan niece Caroline assures us that, while she’s vegan, she’s not an “ethical vegan”, and, thus, doesn’t judge the rest of us. She just prefers a vegan diet.)

Hampton Creek had a pretty important reason to rev up sales and make their product appear to be the vegan “it” mayo: they were in a funding round in which they were trying to convince investors to pony up $90M.

Hampton Creek claims that they were primarily doing the bulk buying for quality assurance, a claim countered by the contractors themselves, who say that they were told they could use or toss the mayo they bought and were reimbursed for. It’s also countered by what’s actually in the Hampton Creek QA database. And by the normal QA practices in the food industry. Some quality assurance.

And that QA effort is not mentioned in the emails to the contractors talking up the project.

“We need you in Safeway buying Just Mayo and our new flavored mayos,” Caroline Love, Hampton Creek’s then director of corporate partnership, wrote in an April 2014 e-mail to contract workers known as Creekers. “And we’re going to pay you for this exciting new project! Below is the list of stores that have been assigned to you.” Love’s memo also referenced a key competitor: “The most important next step with Safeway is huge sales out of the gate. This will ensure we stay on the shelf to put an end to Hellmann’s factory-farmed egg mayo, and spread the word to customers that Just Mayo is their new preferred brand. :)”

There’s plenty wrong with this, starting with hoodwinking potential investors into over-valuing your company. I’m sure plenty of investors wouldn’t mind seeing this sort of behavior after the fact if it a) were disclosed, and b) eventually translated into real sales. If… But I’m also sure that investors value transparency. I’d be a tad pissed if I’d invested in Hampton Creek.

Because even if you did an initial buying burst to get grocery chains to buy more, what was going to happen if the product just languishes on the shelf gathering dust? (Wait. Is dust allowed to gather on vegan foods? Doesn’t dust have stuff like mites in it?)

In addition to the mayonnaise buying spree, contractors were asked to pretend they were consumers and call grocery stores demanding that they stock Hampton Creek products. (C.f., Ty Cobb.)

The e-mails also directed contractors to conceal their identities and fib if questioned on the calls. “Remember, you are calling as a customer,” says an e-mail addressed to a contractor and signed by Myers, whose title now is Ingredient Sourcer. “The conversation should go something like this: Hi, I’m doing some catering and I’m looking to pick up this new mayonnaise. I think it’s called Just Mayo ...” In another script, contractors were told to say, "Hi! I’m hoping you can help me out. I’m planning a Back to School event and I’m looking to pick up this new mayonnaise. I think it’s called Just Mayo ...”

“I think it’s called Just Mayo.” Good one.

From what I read, Just Mayo is supposed to be pretty good – comparable to Hellman’s. But, hey, all those pro Just Mayo comments may have been paid trolls. (In the articles I looked at, many of the comments also noted that, whatever Hampton Creek was or wasn’t doing with its fake sales, it was nothing in comparison to what goes on in the evil egg industry.)

Admittedly, while I could quite comfortably become a vegetarian – and probably would become one if I gave more thought to the food industrial complex - I could never be a vegan. No milk products – no ice cream, no yogurt, no cheese. No eggs, thus eliminating all those baked goods. No honey for my tea, as honey, I guess, exploits bees.

Anyway, Hampton Creek is trying to close yet another funding round. Bet those investors will be looking a bit more closely at Just Mayo sales…

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