Brands, personal and corporate (well, businesses are people, too, my friend according to the Supreme Court), are being pushed, pulled and inspired to cross The Razor's Edge ever faster by the power of social media and the voices of their customers who expect...well, they expect the brand to live up to the promises they, their customers, have understood the brand to make.
Kashi Cereal received a harsh contemporary experience of The Razor's Edge recently. That experience was delivered to its doorsteps, real and virtual, by its passionate customers and their use of social media. Maybe you read about it. If not, there are some links at the bottom to this story.
But, first, let's back up.
Its epigraph reads:
Maybe, I liked the 1946 movie best of all three versions. That was my first exposure to The Razor's Edge so I came with little or no expectations or biases. Tabla Rasa, so to speak. Then, I was surprised by how well Bill Murray played the lead character, Larry Darrell, through his journey to 'happiness' in 1984.
Now, to Kashi Cereals. I like Kashi Cereals. I like their Autumn Harvest. That's the one my wife says tastes like cardboard . As luck would have it, that's the one Kashi product that also carries the magic seal of USDA-Certified Organic. More on that later.
I didn't buy the cereal for that organic label. I never noticed it until after this brouhaha with Kashi happened. I bought Kashi's Autumn Harvest because A. I wanted cold cereal. I like cold cereal. It's like a glass of milk with crunchiness.; B. I liked the shapes of Autumn Harvest; C. I trusted Kashi. Kashi for me meant organic, natural, high-quality, healthy. D. Finally, I liked its price. When you compare it to its other brands, priced cheaper but in smaller packages, it's a great deal.
Kashi was organic in my mind. All of Kashi is organic. Organic means no GMO...anywhere. Organic means...natural, not man made, not man-manipulated liked GMO ingredients are man-made, man-manipulated. So....with reasons A-D satisfied, I think I made the assumptive, fill-in-the blank decision: I'll buy Kashi.
Look at Kashi's Meet Us page:
Passionate people, 25 years, healthy, all natural foods.
Look at Kashi's marketing copy from their our foods page:
Passionate about good, all-natural foods.
On the back of my box of cereal was an opportunity to Meet Our Farmers. In my case, on my box, were Mark and Marcy Jones.
Marcy and I have been in business as organic farmers since 1985...we now raise organic peas, milllet, flax and amaranth to complement our beautiful waves of wheat...
1985 is...wait for it...over 25 years.
With that marketing copy how would anyone assume all-natural meant that Kashi might use GMO ingredients in some of their products.
And, any rational reader and/or consumer would assume the definition of natural, especially when used on a cereal box or website of a company that sells cereals, would exclude man-designed and manipulated and manufactured GMO, genetically-modified organisms.
But...you know that old saying about assumptions and what they make out of their holder. Turns out my assumptions were wrong about Kashi. I had a lot of company with my wrong assumptions.
Ingredients in some products from Kashi might be defined as GMO, genetically-modified organisms. And no one believes GMOs are natural.
Were it any other brand, almost any other brand, a high percentage of non-GMO ingredients (even possibly not organic) would be a cause to celebrate.
Hey, this glass isn't half full...it's 70% full of good, healthy, non-GMO ingredients for you and your family.
That brand would plaster that message on every surface.
But this is Kashi. Kashi said for 25 years they've been passionate about all-natural. Not all-natural with a smattering of GMO ingredients, you know, filler stuff, make it taste better'n all that. You won't notice it. Much.
But this is Kashi. Kashi had to know its promise included only natural ingredients as their customers defined natural. And, their customers said Hey, your cereal box is 30% full of GMO stuff. You said it was 100% full of natural ingredients. GMO's aren't natural.
And when some grovery stores discovered this, they posted notices that informed their customers. And those customers shared those notices with each other. And they used social media to share the story that Kashi's commitment to natural was a bit unnatural in their eyes. So, they pushed Kashi, with their voices and digital and social media, to cross The Razor's Edge...and honor their promises. That's the promises their customers heard, not the promises offered with opaque, possibly translucent, but conveniently misleading marketing copy.
Here's where the real pain for any brand arises when it's pushed across this Razor's Edge of openness, transparency and partnership by its customers. The real pain begins when it pushes back, when the fear of exposure and loss of control of their message forces a reaction and not an embrace. The brand drags itself across this razor multiple times.
When pressed about their percentage of GMO ingredients, as much as 30% in some brands, their General Manager said their definition of natural was:
...food that's minimally processed, made with no artificial colors, flavors, preservatives or sweeteners.
Ah. If any of their customers were asked if that definition met theirs, how many would raise their hands, nod their heads north and south to say 'yes'? Any hands? I don't see any.
Disengenous brand responses count as one more trip across the Razor's Edge. Ouch.
Persistence in disengenous responses count as another.
Kashi has done nothing wrong, says David DeSouza, Kashi general manager. "The FDA has chosen not to regulate the term 'natural,'
Well, he's right. Technically. Legally, too. Painfully, you might say, in this narrative.
But, when it comes to terms and their definitions in the areas of organic, natural, food safety the FDA has little interest in...commitment. It has little interest in consumers, many would say, too. From the FDA's page:
From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is 'natural' because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives.
How many consumers are aware that the FDA cannot define natural...? For that matter, how many need the FDA to do so?
Most consumers have neither the time nor the patience to enter the world of corporate cognitive dissonance and PR spin. We're disgusted by it, really. Quibbling over the term 'natural' and its definitions and use to then side-step or overlook, conveniently, the inclusion of GMO ingredients is the act of ...companies we don't trust and agencies with whom we've long lost faith.
But, again, this is Kashi, even if it's owned by Kellogg.
Kashi is a brand we trust because...well because we've been led to trust them. We've been led to believe them. And they say all the right things, for over 25 years, and by now they should know that...'natural' does not include GMO except in the alternative universe of government agencies who are perceived to have close ties to corporate interests.
25 years to build the image of an organic powerhouse. And it's not undone, but it's tarnished, ok, scratched and cut, left bleeding...with but a few revelations shared by a few thousand or more customers and prospects who discovered our definition of 'natural' is so unnatural to Kashi. Maybe, inconvenient is more accurate.
That two step, back and forth, between customers' passions for organic, natural and healthy food and the impression that Kashi conveniently uses an unnatural definition of natural to allow it to use unnatural GMO ingredients and then fail to inform its buying public, conveniently, and then bunker in with obscure definitions and its own fine-print...is The Razor's Edge for Kashi Cereals. And the ouch of their slip and fall on one of those steps was delivered by social media in the hands of Kashi's customers.
In a broader sense, this is the business world's version of The Razor's Edge. Once you say you share your customers passions...once you say you're committed to delivering a product, service, brand experience that honors those passions....for over 25 years, well customers tend to believe you. Not your expectations. Not your promises, not your terms as you define them. No. It's the expectations you created using the terms we understand and which we then embraced and made it our own. You see we're part of that process now. It's our understandings now that you seek to meet and exceed. Not yours.
When a brand meets our expectations, speaks our language, that creates a powerful relationship of trust, of blind purchasing decisions. That's a good thing. Until we realize that um, we're not speaking the same language. In Kashi's instance they used terms that were hot buttons for us, their customer. But they defined and used them in ways that were convenient for them, not us.
Technically...you are correct. But, as I said before ....that's irrelevant.
In these days of instant global reach, a 'technical' misunderstanding drags you once over the Razor's Edge. Defending your role in that misunderstanding, justifying it, using arcane and obscure definitions of widely-used terms...only drag you over that razor, back and forth. And each time you're dragged farther and farther...back and forth. That's what Kashi just discovered. And of course, a different story could have gone viral, too.
That's part of The Razor's Edge for business now. They want customers to be passionate, lay 'claim' to their brand, tattoo the logo somewhere visible. But what they struggle with is the reality that customers now have a place at the table where the decisions are made.
I'll keep buying my Autumn Wheat. Why? Well, ironically it has the label of USDA Organic. You see the irony, don't you? The trust challenged governmental agency is now the seal of approval for what had been a trust-rich brand.
In fairness to Kashi, a salve for my dragging it once more across the razor's edge, it is announcing its commitment to organic foods through its support of the NONGMO Project. NONGMo is a 3rd party confirmation of ...non-GMO ingredient claims.
And here are Kashi's claims for the future with that project:
Funnily enough, we have a company in my current home town of Fairfield, IA which has been involved in 3rd party verification of GMO/on-GMO ingredients. It's name is GeneticID. Guys, you have competition now. I mentioned the idea to them a few months ago that wouldn't it be great if the gold seal of approval on retail consumer packages was not the FDA's little logo but theirs? No response.
The Razor's Edge ends with this:
For all the persons with whom I have been concerned got what they wanted: Elliott social eminence; Isabel an assured position backed by a substantial fortune in an active and culture community; Gray a steady and lucrative job, with an office to go to from nine till six every day; Suzanne Rouvier security, Sophie death; and Larry Happiness. And however superciliously the highbrows carp, we the public in our heart of hears all like a success story; so perhaps my ending is no so unsatisfactory after all.
For this story, I would end it like this:
For all the persons with whom I have been concerned got what they wanted:
- Kashi social eminence, a leadership role in bringing change to our global food supply;
- Kashi, a vital growing community of passionate suppliers dedicated to a shared goal of producing organic, natural, healthy food;
- Kashi, again, a vital and growing community of passionate customer evangelists who volunteer to share with their friends and neighbors their experience with Kashi's products;
- Everyone else, a real-time example of a corporate brand who embraced their partners, customers and suppliers, and accepted their help in crossing their Razor's Edge.
And however superciliously the highbrows carp, we the public in our heart of hears all like a success story; so perhaps my ending is not so unsatisfactory after all.