For Unilever, it seems, revenge is a dish best served without mayo

Global Outlook

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The Independent Online

What else is any self-respecting American going to put on a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich? Mayo of course, although if the Anglo-Dutch food-to-beauty products giant Unilever has its way, it won’t be Just Mayo.

A lawsuit filed by Unilever earlier this week seeks to stop the San Francisco-based start-up Hampton Creek from using the word “mayo” on labels for its egg-free condiment – a condiment so delicious that Bill Gates was among a who’s who of investors prepared to write the company a cheque. And as The Simpsons pointed out years ago, he didn’t get rich by writing a lot of cheques.

The lawsuit may appear to the casual observer to be frivolous, but for both parties involved it’s deadly serious.

Frivolous because Hampton Creek is still a tiddler in the global mayonnaise market, which apparently is worth something over $11bn (£7bn) per year. That’s a lot of sandwiches. Unilever is the 800lb gorilla thanks to brands like Hellmann’s, but there are also lots of vegan versions that use some derivative of the word mayonnaise on their labels.

If anything, the lawsuit looks like it could be a marketing boon for Just Mayo, which despite being a tiddler is already sold at a handful of retail giants across the US. Unilever’s gripe, according to the lawsuit filed in New Jersey, is that Just Mayo doesn’t contain eggs and therefore should not be called “mayo”. It claims that the presence of Just Mayo on the American market has resulted in “consumer deception” and done “irreparable harm” to Unilever.

It’s a stretch, to put it mildly, to claim that any real damage has been done to Unilever. Any damage from now on can probably be described as self-inflicted.

But it’s serious because, through its suit, Unilever is acknowledging the success and threat of Hampton Creek, which is tackling a food problem, egg production and its associated costs, through botanical science – and that’s potentially going to create lots of friends and lots of enemies.

There are probably two big reasons for Unilever’s action. First, when billionaires Bill Gates,  Li Ka-shing and Peter Thiel are among the backers of a potential competitor, it’s worth keeping a very close eye on it.

Secondly, Just Mayo is pretty much the real deal, minus the eggs. It looks and tastes just like mayonnaise, right down to those little bubbles, and is competitively priced. It isn’t some watery, expensive vegan alternative made using soy milk. I know – there’s a half-eaten jar of it in my fridge.

Speaking of soy milk, last year’s ruling by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to allow that word to appear on cartons in dairy aisles across the country might doom Unilever’s efforts to failure. If a product that is made from soy beans can be marketed as milk then it’s possible that the courts, if the dispute gets that far, will decide that another product made from plant extracts can be called mayo.

In fairness to Unilever it is caught between a rock and a hard place. Filing a suit against a much smaller rival potentially does much more damage to your own brand than doing nothing, but leave a competitive product alone for long enough and you might find yourself fighting a much stronger opponent.

It’s a shame because Unilever has a sustainability and social investment record that it is rightly proud of. Lawsuits such as this make it look like any other corporate bully, but scratch under the surface and you’ll find that generally it’s not.

Meanwhile Hampton Creek’s defence is not so straightforward. The FDA rules that mayonnaise must contain eggs, and there’s a chance Unilever could get the best of a settlement or even win in court.

Deeper pockets usually win the day, assuming Mr Gates and his pals don’t want to keep on writing cheques.

Key space travel into a search engine: you might get Google

Virgin’s space woes are having zero impact Stateside. There must be a lot of potential customers in deep space, because nothing, not even fatal test crashes, seems to be dampening corporate America’s obsession with the further reaches of the universe. Well, if Elon Musk – Sir Richard Branson on meth for millennials – is doing it, it must be the way forward, right?

Google punted another few hundred million dollars on space toys last week, chump change by its standards admittedly, and in doing so helped fund Nasa into the bargain. Larry Page and Sergey Brin are just about old enough to be nostalgic for the final moments of the space race, so maybe that’s the reason.

It’s a bit of a strange deal for Nasa. And even, by its standards, for Google too. In essence a property sale and leaseback, Nasa will make just over a billion bucks in rent over a 60-year period. Yes, 60 years. So a flagship federal programme that has been woefully underfunded for years will, barring a miracle, probably remain woefully underfunded.

Anyway, in return Google, or rather its geek died-and-gone-to-heaven subsidiary Planetary Ventures, gets to renovate some huge Nasa hangars in the California desert at Moffett Federal Airfield. There, Google engineers will experiment with aviation, space technology, robots and cyborg warriors. OK maybe not the cyborg warriors, but who knows?

As a sweetener for the taxpayer, Google will also create some educational function at the site, where ordinary Americans can learn about their new robot overlords.

It’s unlikely that any groups opposing the deal – and there are some, such as Consumer Watchdog, that are – will have much joy. Politically there is unlikely to be any opposition. Many right-wing Republicans - as if there are any other sort – want to put a “for sale” sign over whatever federal land they can get their mitts on, and Democrats ... well, are Democrats.

Opponents point to the fact Google is a private business and will circumvent many state and federal guidelines at its new facility, although if it brings driverless cars one step closer, I’m all for it.

So Sir Richard Branson and Virgin might be back to the drawing board on commercial space travel, but for Google, it’s still full steam ahead.