Hellmann's Parent Company Drops Lawsuit Against Just Mayo

In Depth

My fellow Americans, I have important news: two days ago was V-M Day in World War Mayo. Yes, our long national nightmare is over: Hellmann’s parent company Unilever has dropped their pedantic, hypocritical lawsuit against Just Mayo manufacturer Hampton Creek.

For those just catching up on this story, roughly a month and a half ago, Hellmann’s parent company Unilever filed suit against Just Mayo-manufacturer Hampton Creek, on the flimsy basis that Just Mayo had “mayo” in the name while containing no eggs — not that they had ever claimed to. Nevertheless, Unilever’s entire case was built on the fact that Just Mayo’s product didn’t meet the legal definition of mayonnaise…which didn’t really look great for Hellmann’s when it turned out that neither did some of their own products going under the name “mayo.” Thursday, Unilever succumbed to sanity and withdrew their Just Mayo fatwa.

No settlement was reached in the case, as Unilever dropped the lawsuit entirely. That’s somewhat unusual; generally when a large corporation goes to the trouble of filing a lawsuit, they see it through. Nevertheless, the head of North American foods for Unilever called Hampton Creek founder Josh Tetrick on Thursday to let him know they would be waving the legal white flag. Unilever’s public statement, which is surprisingly gracious while offering little to no explanation, reads:

Unilever has decided to withdraw its lawsuit against Hampton Creek so that Hampton Creek can address its label directly with industry groups and appropriate regulatory authorities,” said Mike Faherty, Vice President for Foods, Unilever North America.
Faherty continued: “We applaud Hampton Creek’s commitment to innovation and its inspired corporate purpose. We share a vision with Hampton Creek of a more sustainable world. It is for these reasons that we believe Hampton Creek will take the appropriate steps in labeling its products going forward.”

“I think the reason they dropped it is because the overwhelming public reaction had to be surprising,” said Tetrick when asked why he thought the lawsuit was ultimately dropped. He has a point: over 100,000 people signed a Change.org petition urging Unilever to drop the lawsuit (as well as thousands of phone calls to the same effect), high profile celebrity food personalities like Andrew Zimmern were on board, and major retailers were privately issuing Hampton Creek statements of support. That’s a hell of a blitz to deal with, even for a megalith like Unilever. Most interestingly of all, Tetrick tells Kitchenette that Hampton Creek were apparently receiving e-mails of support from sources inside Unilever itself.

The fact that Hampton Creek had sources inside Unilever that were expressing support is a pretty significant revelation. It’s difficult to say whether there was some factionalism going on with the whole lawsuit (Tetrick didn’t wish to speculate), but whatever the issue, Unilever isn’t keen on talking about it: their only response to a request for comment on this story was a copy of the press release quoted above.*

Tetrick is far more gracious about this than I’d be in his shoes — I’d be running around the office, drunk and pantsless, shouting “WHO IS VICTORIOUS?! JOSH IS VICTORIOUS!” (this is one of many, many reasons I am utterly unqualified run a successful start-up). Tetrick, meanwhile, took time to praise Unilever’s efforts at sustainability as similar to Hampton Creek’s and went out of his way to point out how out-of-character this lawsuit seemed for them.

Then again, Tetrick can afford to be gracious — with the way this turned out, it could not possibly have worked out better for Hampton Creek. In addition to beating Unilever essentially without ever firing a shot, the whole story has significantly raised the profile of Just Mayo; many people (including myself) had never heard of it before this story. Unsurprisingly, Tetrick reports that Hampton Creek’s profits are way up since this story first broke. Hampton Creek was gift-wrapped tons of positive press and handled the situation adroitly, while Unilever essentially confidently charged out of the gate, only to faceplant at the first turn.

The moral, then: if you’re a big corporation, don’t file a petty, absurd, hypocritical lawsuit against a relatively tiny competitor, because there’s nothing America loves more than a David and Goliath story.

* I can’t say I blame them; if I worked in the Unilever media relations office and had read my first two pieces on this story, I sure as hell wouldn’t want to talk to me either.

Image via Hampton Creek/Facebook.

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