The risk in brands

Last week Nestlé, the world’s biggest food packaging company—and by far the world’s biggest retail coffee company—paid a rumoured $425 million for a 68% stake in Blue Bottle Coffee Co, a specialist, single-origin coffee company. There is probably little that Blue Bottle can teach Nestlé about how to make coffee, so I guess that Nestlé is paying for the brand.

Nestlé is not only the biggest coffee company, it is also one of the world’s biggest manager of brands—they currently own more than 2,000 of them. Nestlé probably know even more about brand management than they do about making a good cup of coffee. But as the NY Times pointed out in July, traditional brands are under pressure as more people buy their groceries online. Sales of classic brands have plateaued, and small start-ups are grabbing market share, leaving companies like Nestlé struggling to adjust. Hence their purchase of Blue Bottle Coffee Co.

Blue Bottle was founded in 2002 by a former professional clarinet player, and has a strong following among customers concerned about where their coffee comes from, and its impact on the environment and human rights. The company optimistically argues that that being taken over by Nestlé won’t change a thing.

In an article on the acquisition, the Guardian newspaper quoted a customer—a yoga instructor—at one of Blue Bottle’s branches in Manhattan as saying, “Where you buy anything right now – especially now – is part of a large point of view around how conscious you want to be about your impact on the world. Nestlé is not an ethical company.”

Although it is not explicit in the article, the yoga instructor appeared to be referring to a time in the 1970s when Nestlé was selling powdered baby formula to developing countries. There was nothing wrong with the milk powder; the problem was the unhealthy water that mothers mixed with it. But Nestlé was obviously not without blame.

Having said that, I would take issue with the claim that Nestlé is not an ethical company. Although there is always room for improvement, the company is an industry leader in terms of sustainable supply chains, human rights and living wages for the farmers that feed us. As in most big companies, the people that run Nestlé are not faceless individuals but human beings that want to make the world a better place for their children.

The price that Nestlé paid for Blue Bottle clearly shows how important it is for the big companies to remain “brand relevant”—to move with the times and reach out to younger consumers. But it also highlights that the money in the agricultural supply chain lies firmly with the retail brands.

However, the yoga teacher’s comments show how easily brands can become damaged and lose value—and how long what is perceived as unethical behaviour stays in people’s minds. The milk powder controversy occurred almost half a century ago, but it is still recent enough to discourage a potential customer from consuming Nestlé’s coffee.

Even if brands are “where the money is” in the food supply chain, the risks involved in protecting the brand probably justify the returns. Brand managers are now the guardians of a food company’s value; they increasing feel under siege from a civil society that views them as “easy targets”.

Three recent examples highlight how quickly brands can become damaged goods. The first is Bell Pottinger, which was ironically one of the world’s top public relations companies. Caught up in claims that it stirred up racial tension in South Africa, the company is now fighting for survival. Clients have deserted them and the company might soon cease to exist as a result of the scandal.

The second example involves smallholder encroachment on tropical rainforest and national parks in Ivory Coast and Ghana. Mighty Earth, an NGO, claims (almost certainly correctly) that “dirty” (unsustainable and/or illegal) cocoa is finding its way into the supply chains of Mars, Nestle, Hershey’s, Godiva, and other major chocolate companies. The brands were quick to respond.

The third example is a recent New York Times article that blames Nestlé (again) and the other processed food companies for increased obesity in Brazil.

Negative media coverage such as this can cause significant damage to brands, and take decades to recover.

The fact that brands have become so valuable—and capture so much of the value in today’s food chains—is not great news for farmers and commodity merchandisers faced with meagre profit margins. But at the same time the value that is inherent in those brands increases the leverage that civil society has over the big food companies. And to the extent that this encourages the food companies to be even more ethical and sustainable, it is probably good news for the planet.

Bunge makes its move

Bunge hit the news this week when the company announced that it was buying 70 per cent of IOI Loders Croklaan BV from IOI Corp for close to one billion dollars. Loders Croklaan BV is one of the leading global suppliers of specialty oils and fats to the processed food industry. It has manufacturing operations in the Netherlands, the US, Malaysia and Canada.

Malaysia’s IOI Group bought Loders from Unilever in November 2002. Since then, the unit has grown from three to seven processing plants and earnings have quadrupled. According to a filing with the Malaysian Stock Exchange, IOI Group will record a gain of about 2.5 billion ringgit ($595 million) from the sale.

Bunge Ltd said that it was buying the stake as part of a strategy to invest in higher-margin businesses such as food ingredients and natural flavourings. The company denied that the purchase was a defensive move against being taken over themselves.

A couple of weeks back I wrote about the various strategies that different trade houses are following in an attempt to improve margins: Glencore is concentrating on logistics, Cargill on processing, and ADM on ingredients. I added, rather cheekily, that Dreyfus is trying a little bit of everything while Bunge was wondering whether they might be worth more as part of a bigger organisation.

The fact that Bunge’ share price fell on the Loders announcement seemingly confirmed that the stock market had been wondering the same thing. However, there was also a suggestion that the fall in the share price might have at least been partly related to the fact that Bunge was increasing their exposure to palm oil.

Some investors may be worried about the worsening economics of the industry. Palm oil stocks are soon forecast to top two million tonnes, and crude palm oil prices are down twelve per cent so far this year. Perhaps more importantly, palm oil is the one commodity that everyone loves to hate.

In 2016 the Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) temporarily excluded IOI Group from membership over concerns regarding its palm oil purchases from third party suppliers. The issue attracted a lot of media attention at the time and all the major food companies cancelled their purchase contracts with the group. (Cargill held out for a while, arguing that they could make more of an impact by continuing to work with the supplier, but in the end they also caved in under media pressure.)

The RSPO reinstated IOI Group in August 2016 and the food companies slowly and reluctantly resumed sourcing their palm oil from them. In a statement at the time Unilever said, “We are pleased to see the progress IOI has made so far, in particular, on third party suppliers, independent verifications, and increased transparency.”

Greenpeace, one of the more aggressive civil society operators, said that over the years IOI has produced “a string of commitments about ending the destruction (of forests), but none of them were properly implemented and failed to make a difference on the ground.” However, they added that losing big customers “put IOI under enormous pressure and was instrumental in bringing about (a) change in direction”.

As you might expect there was considerably more media coverage when the RSPO excluded IOI Group from membership than when they let them back in. This is partly standard media bias: bad news sells more advertising than good news. But it also standard civil society bias: bad news (about evil companies destroying rain forests) encourages more donations than good news (about companies working to protect them).

Bunge’s purchase of Loders reduces the chances that they will be taken over themselves, and it is understandable that the stock market was disappointed by the news. However, it is not certain that a bidder would have in any case placed a high value on the company given its exposure to the Brazilian sugarcane sector at a time of low prices for both sugar and energy.

By making this move Bunge has done two things. First, they have increased their exposure to the world’s lowest cost—but most controversial—vegetable oil. Second, they have taken a strategic step along the path from trading to processing, and from commodities to ingredients. These moves are risky, but so often in business the biggest risk is not to move at all.