If you can’t beat them, join them.
That’s the strategy Unilever seems to be taking with its Hellmann’s brand, which the company announced yesterday will now have an option made without eggs.
The decision by the food giant is the latest twist in the ongoing Mayo Wars with Hampton Creek, a San Francisco-based startup that has gained attention for its vegan product called Just Mayo. Unilever sued Hampton Creek in 2014, alleging false advertising because Just Mayo does not contain eggs -- an ingredient required in mayonnaise, according to the Food and Drug Administration’s legal definition of the condiment.
In the 2014 filing Unilever acknowledged that Hellmann’s was losing share to Hampton Creek’s Just Mayo. Unilever later dropped the suit amid consumer backlash over its Goliath vs. David nature.
Unilever is not calling its new product mayo or mayonnaise; instead it will be called “Hellmann’s Carefully Crafted Dressing & Sandwich Spread.” It seems targeted at the type of consumer who might otherwise be buying Just Mayo. Unilever touts the fact that its eggless spread will be free from artificial colors, artificial flavors and genetically modified ingredients. (Unilever is also launching an organic mayonnaise.)
“It really boils down to listening to our consumers,” Russel Lilly, marketing director at Hellmann’s, told Fortune. “That’s what this effort and this product launch is about.”
Last year the Mayo Wars took a new turn when the FDA sent Hampton Creek a warning letter, saying that Just Mayo products were “misbranded” because they do not meet the definition and standard of identity for mayonnaise. In December the FDA decided that Hampton Creek could keep using the name Just Mayo if it made some changes to its label.
Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick told Fortune that he was pleased to see the new product launch from Unilever. “We’ve got a food system that’s doing a lot more bad than it is good so these companies have to participate,” he said. “I think it’s incredibly encouraging, and a really good step.”
The Mayo Wars are part of a larger shift occurring within the food industry. Big brands have lost market share to upstarts, who are benefitting from consumers’ mistrust of Big Food. Legacy companies like Unilever have been fighting back by making changes to their iconic brands in order to compete with small “natural” food brands like Hampton Creek.