A Hitch on the Way to the Boycott

Consumers may be nursing rage against certain companies, but they often don't know which products they're not supposed to be buying.

A customer at a Tel Aviv branch of Super-Sol Deal supermarket this week snarled, "I'm furious with Strauss. I'm boycotting them, and Osem too."

"But you have Ahla and Tzabar salads in your shopping cart," observed a fellow shopper.

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"What does that have to do with it?" answered the first customer, evidently unaware that Tzabar is a division of food manufacturer Osem and Ahla salads are made by the Strauss Group.

The confusion is understandable. Neither Osem's logo nor its company name appear on Tzabar salad containers. Nor do they appear on the packaging of others of the company's divisions, such as vegetarian food manufacturer Tivall, or Materna, which makes baby formula.

There are other cases where companies at the top of the heap do display their logo on sub-brands, such as Harduf organic products, most Strauss goods and Tnuva's Olivia gourmet spreads. Dove soaps and Badin detergents are clearly made under the auspices of Unilever, and Pantene and Head & Shoulders hair-care products sport their origin with Procter & Gamble. In all cases the logo is modest and small, typically on the back of the packaging, but it is there.

However, consumers clearly have little idea who makes what. A survey by the Panels market research institute for TheMarker looked into consumer awareness regarding the sub-brands of Israel's three biggest food manufacturers - Tnuva, Strauss and Osem - and found that most have no idea what each makes. Many declared their intention of boycotting this or that company - such as over the cost of Tnuva cottage cheese or in protest at the price of Strauss candy bars abroad compared to in Israel - but didn't know which products they had to eschew.

Out of 11 brands made by Strauss that Panels checked, consumers correctly associated only four products with the manufacturer. The survey found that 76% knew chocolate manufacturer Elite belongs to Strauss (it was acquired in 2004 ), and knew that Strauss produces Milky puddings and Danone yogurt. Also, 63% knew that Strauss produces Ahla salads and dips.

But taking this knowledge to the next stage proved tricky. While aware that Strauss owns Elite, many didn't realize that Elite brands such as Tapuchips potato chips, and Cheetos snack puffs and Doritos tortilla chips are therefore also, ultimately, Strauss products (awareness of 18% and 23% respectively ).

Only 16% of respondents realized that Strauss also owns the Yad Mordechai honey company and that Energy breakfast cereals and snack bars are also a Strauss unit. Some 70% didn't know that Must chewing gum is made by Strauss.

So while nearly 34% of respondents declared they were boycotting Strauss and forgoing its products, and 25% said they intend to (only 29% said they definitely wouldn't ), many couldn't say what specific products they would have to forgo. Only 31% of the group stating they were boycotting Strauss realized that meant they couldn't buy Yotvata dairy products and only 25% knew they couldn't touch Yad Mordechai products either.

Yet in Strauss' case, most of its products prominently display the company's logo. In 2008, well before the cost-of-living protests exploded, Strauss made the strategic decision of converging all its products under a single corporate identity. (Yad Mordechai is an exception because Strauss does not own the company outright, it only has a stake in it. )

While about it, Strauss redesigned its logo. The company's chief executive and president at the time, Erez Vigodman, explained that the purpose was to build a platform for the company's global expansion - to create a single, powerful, recognizable brand in Israel and the world.

Yet for some reason, would-be boycotters recognize Tnuva products rather better than they do goodies made by Strauss.

Boycotting the wrong company

That said, many also fail to associate between Tnuva and its secondary brands, though, again, the company's logo does appear on most products. It may not be prominent, but it's there.

Yet only 13% of respondents knew that Tirat Zvi processed meat products are made by Tnuva. Only 14% were aware that Harduf and Olivia are Tnuva brands. A quarter knew that Sunfrost frozen foods and Maadanot baked goods are Tnuva vehicles, and 48% knew that Mama Of chicken products are Tnuva's too.

The yogurt brand Yoplait wins more recognition as being Tnuva's, with 55% saying they knew that.

The potential to wind up accidentally boycotting the wrong company is there.

Some 22.5% said they're boycotting Tnuva and another 21% said they mean to. There seems to be a slightly higher level of brand awareness among people who said they're already boycotting Tnuva than among the ones snubbing Strauss - possibly because the movement against Tnuva has been around for longer and lists of the company's sub-brands have been published.

However, even in Tnuva's case, only 16% of respondents already boycotting the company turned out to know that it owns Tirat Zvi. While a third knew that Sunfrost is one of its units, only 6% of the boycotters were aware that Harduf belongs to Tnuva as well.

Of the big three companies, Osem conceals its logo the most. Many of its sub-brands don't show the Osem logo at all, and consumer awareness of its basket of products is unsurprisingly the lowest. Only 10% of the respondents polled knew that pickled-food maker Beit Hashita belongs to Osem, and only 14% knew that it also owns Tzabar salads. A quarter were aware that it owns the controlling interest in Tivall, and 38% knew that Materna is one of its brands.

Taster's Choice coffee also belongs to Osem and 32% of respondents knew that. But clearly, a majority of shoppers hadn't a clue about any of the above.

In contrast to Tnuva and Strauss, Osem has yet to be singled out as a target of the boycott movement, yet 8% of respondents said they are boycotting it.

But as we have seen, while many consumers may be nursing real rage against the manufacturing machine, they don't know which products they're not supposed to be buying.

Five firms control 50% of the food market

A visit to the local grocery could give the impression that the shelves are stocked with a great range of gaily packaged goods that ostensibly vie with one another for the consumer's heart and stomach. But the truth is that many of the small brands belong to the five biggest food manufacturers - Tnuva, Strauss, Osem, the Central Bottling Company (Coca Cola Israel ) and Unilever. The five control about 50% of the entire market for food and beverages in Israel, according to 2011 figures compiled by the Storenext marketing firm.

The food companies attained this gargantuan share of the market thanks to expansion policies going back decades. They simply bought up the minnows.

Osem is the leader in acquisitions. In the last few years it bought six more small companies, including Tivall, the Bonjour chain of bakeries and cafes, Tzabar and Beit Hashita. Its latest acquisition was of Maabarot, parent company of Materna. That deal led to sharp criticism of the Antitrust Authority for approving the deal. Critics claimed that the acquisition blocked the advent of competition in Israel by the world's biggest baby-formula company, Nestle (though that company owns a 54% controlling interest in Osem ).

Coca Cola Israel didn't sit back counting the bottles on the wall. Over the years it bought the Neviot mineral water company (which is now being delisted ), and the dairy companies Tara and Zuriel.

Tnuva used acquisitions to enter into new areas - for instance buying brands such as Sunfrost, Maadanot and Olivia.

Strauss for its part bought Yad Mordechai, Max Brenner chocolates and the Tami 4 water-dispensers maker.

Why companies downplay group identity

It isn't that companies are consistently obscuring themselves, says a senior executive at one of the food companies. "They simply check whether association of a specific brand with the company's name will help sales or not." In the past things were simpler, he said. Each company had a few brands under its name. But today, big companies have their fingers in a great many pies that have no clear connection between them. When food companies deliberate about associating a given brand with the company, they often find the disadvantages outweigh the advantages, he said.

"On the one hand, the positive thing in associating brands with the company is identifying them with a big company, a responsible one, a 'good home,' as it were," he explains. "On the other hand, that can hurt the company in the event of a problem. For instance, if there's a problem with Maadanot products, then the owner Tnuva won't want the whole business to suffer. Also, consumers like branded products. They don't want to know that Telma cornflakes come from the same place that makes Dove soap, or that Crema shampoo is made by Sano, which also makes house-cleaning materials."

Another food executive elaborates on another reason to downplay the parent company identification. "Recently it was reported that Dove was carrying out testing on animals," he said. "Unilever's advantage in this case is that consumers won't boycott Telma because of the report on Dove, though both belong to Unilever. From the company's perspective, it's better if the consumer doesn't know who the brands belong to. Some companies even maintain a premium brand as well as a low-cost brand that compete with one another, such as Hogla-Kimberly that owns Huggies and Titulim diapers as well."

In other cases the giants don't want to ruin the precious image of a boutique brand. Clear association with the parent company could hurt sales. "The brand Tzabar Salads is supposed to deliver a message of authentic Middle Eastern salads, which doesn't work with the Osem logo," explains a third food executive. "Harduf for instance is perceived as a specialist organic brand, and Beit Hashita is perceived as a specialist in pickled foods. The companies don't want to kill the image by associating it clearly with the parent company."

At the end of the day, the question is to what degree products are similar to one another. Unilever for instance produces breakfast cereals, deodorant, margarine, chocolate and laundry softener, which have absolutely nothing in common, says the third executive. The companies may find synergy in distribution, but not in their communication with the consumer, he explains.

The consumer-rights organization Public Trust says that, given the evident confusion among consumers, it will be publishing lists of all the big companies' products on its Facebook page.

Osem commented that it acquired Tzabar and Tivall, and other company brands, more than 15 years ago, at which time they were already thoroughly established, strong brands. "In a situation like that there is no marketing logic in changing the brand," the company said.

Tnuva and Strauss declined to comment for this article.