Hershey’s and Consumer Respect

Brooks calls me to the floor in the recent post about Hershey’s chocolate:

It is certainly true that Hershey’s is intentionally lowering the quality of their product to save money. But that misses the bigger picture: Hershey’s is in financial trouble. They needed to make some decisions.

Now, I love quality products, and if it were me, I would say “let’s rebuild brand equity, increase the quality of our product, and significantly increase prices.” Maybe that was discussed, maybe it wasn’t.

But the much more neutral and complete way of reporting this would be to say “faced with a choice of increasing prices or lowering quality, Hershey’s oped to lower quality.” They didn’t do it for the sheer joy of making crappier chocolate, after all.

Kate, I love your writing, and I read your stuff religiously. But if you’re not happy with Hershey’s lowering their quality, or with Breyer’s reducing the size of their products, what you’re left with is championing price increases which many people simply can’t afford, and which could be even more disastrous for manufacturers (it may well be that the Hershey’s bean counters decided that increasing prices by 5% would cut sales by 20%, resulting in an even greater financial problem).

I love gourmet food, and I pay for (too much of) it. But in the face of a tough economy, I don’t expect companies to operate at a loss to subsidize my taste. I’m certainly disappointed to see Hershey’s get even worse, but look at the numbers. What would you have them do?

There are several points to be made here, and Brooks is quite right in bringing them to the discussion.

First, let’s address my bias. I am currently working in Quality Assurance, so I have a predilection for maintaining the high standards prescribed by a company (for those not familiar, these standards usually take the form of requirements, although I have no idea whether Hershey’s uses this sort of nomenclature). Additionally, I am currently unaffected by the recent economic downturn (tho’ this could change in the coming months). Both of these positions directly influence my own perspective. Your point of view may differ.

Also, I have no inside information beyond what I am able to find on the Internet. In common terms, this means that I could quite possibly be talking out of my proverbial ass. Due take all I say with a grain of NaCl.

In regard to the Breyers issue, I think I was questioning the practice, rather than out and out denouncing it. I hope that came across in the post.

Let’s be clear about this – What Breyers (and others) are doing is a form of deceit. It’s not on the level of, say, making up stories about weapons of mass destruction in order to justify invading a country, but it still involves intentionally missing a perceived agreed-upon level of expectation with the consumer. Yes, the consumer should be more label savvy, and should approach any product in the supermarket with a bit of cynicism, but the Breyers deceit is still there.

What Hershey’s has done is even more egregious. They’ve taken the respect that they have earned over the past 100 years, and have leveraged it to change the recipe notably for the worse. Of course the company line will be something along the lines of “We deliver the same level of quality that Milton Hershey did back in his day.” or something else filled with similar corporate-speak. It’s in that corporate-speak that one level of their deceit takes place.

The other level is recognizable to anyone who is familiar with Hershey’s as an institution, rather than a simple seller of chocolate. Hershey’s, as a company, had a far different set of values a generation or two ago than they do today. Hershey’s used to believe in their community, and the people who worked for the company. Those days are long gone.

Now I do recognize that all of these changes are economic in nature. I don’t wish to see companies that I love go under, nor do I expect them to meet my own standards of quality. There’s a mass market that they have to reach, and trying to please an individual, whether its me or the CEO, is the surest way to doom the company.

But I do expect them to respect their consumers, and to not treat them like idiots. Both Breyers and Hershey’s are guilty of this, and it bugs the hell out of me. This is my line in the sand. Your line may be different. Breyers could have just as easily provided a smaller version of their product and called it “Economy Sized” (or some other similarly named item). Hershey’s could have not overextended themselves by trying to purchase and run so many different brands. It’s damned expensive trying to run an oligopoly. Perhaps they should stop trying to be one? I don’t know if these would work. But what I do know is that they shouldn’t take their consumers for granted. Ever.