Editorial: Brand-spanking news and views

Cadbury must be puckered with displeasure at the results of the latest Reader's Digest most-trusted brands survey.

For the second successive year its rival, Whittaker's, is top.

Sour news indeed for Cadbury, which held pre-eminent status for at least six years until, its grasp suddenly greasy from palm oil, it slid ingloriously down the poll to 36th.

Until then, Cadbury had been a case study of good marketing, upheld to students as an example of how to build a brand not only by focusing on the inherent qualities of the product itself, but also by highlighting strong emotional connections, such as portraying chocolate as a generous, even loving, gift.

Then came that remarkable example of how to lose friends and alienate people - a double-whammy move that seemed contemptuous of its consumers. In response to rising costs the company both shrank the size of its blocks and changed from cocoa butter to cheaper palm oil, a product that appealed neither to the epicureans nor the Greens.

In response, Whittaker's benefited hugely by doing no more than advertising to contrast these moves with its own tradition and constancy.

Cadbury stood defiant for a short but damaging period, then apologised and dropped the palm oil in 2009. Yet the debacle still lingers in people's memory. As recently as last month, the Sustainable Business Council/Fairfax business and consumer behaviour survey showed nearly one-quarter of the more than 2000 respondents said they had switched brands for ethical reasons in the past year - and some, by way of example, cited Cadbury's use of palm oil.

Cadbury has been ardently trying to regain lost status, recently adopting an advertising campaign evocative of Willy Wonka oompa-loompas, and in May it increased larger blocks by 10 per cent for the same price; a newfound capability it attributed to installing new manufacturing equipment.

Earlier this month, Whittaker's had to do a minor piece of backtracking of its own, pulling Facebook advertisements for its cornflake slab because the rays of morning sunshine used as a backdrop had drawn Korean protest. They saw it as a symbol far more reminiscent of Japan's wartime flag and, therefore, aggression and oppression.

Certainly, Tora! Tora! Tora! wasn't the message Whittaker's was going for.

For its part the wider New Zealand public would not have shared this sensitivity (in fact, don't tell the Koreans, but the beloved Edmonds logo isn't a whole heck of a lot dissimilar) but the company clearly recognised the need to err on the side of humility in such cases.

So what are the lessons from all this? The obvious one is consumers don't like to feel disrespected and they can be slow to forgive, if they do at all.

Also notable is that, although marketing researchers say people tend to over-inflate their own ethical behaviour in opinion surveys, both the Countdown and Foodstuffs supermarket chains have been reporting a noticeable upswing in ethical product sales.

The Southland Times