Should We Applaud PepsiCo for Replacing “Natural” with “Simply” in Its Products?

natural granolaIf you’re a fan, just like me, of Natural Quaker Granola you might be surprised to find that your beloved granola brand has changed its name. It is no longer “Natural Quaker Granola” but “Simply Quaker Granola.”

Don’t worry, though. Other than the name, nothing has really changed in the granola. This is just part of a step PepsiCo, the company that produces the granola, has taken to replace the word “natural” with the word “simply” in all of its products. Its “Simply Natural” line of Frito-Lay chips for example will be called now just “Simply,” and so on.

Why has PepsiCo gone through the trouble of changing the names of so many of its products, omitting what seems to be a key part in the marketing strategy of these products?

According to Candace Mueller-Medina, a spokeswoman for PepsiCo’s Quaker brand, this is quite simple. “We constantly update our marketing and packaging,” she said. Apparently though, the answer is a bit more complicated.

It starts and ends with the fact that the adjective “natural” (or “all natural”), which for years has faithfully served food manufacturers due to its vague definition and the fact that many consumers believe it means “healthy,” has become much more controversial lately — to the point that companies like PepsiCo have decided they’ll be better off without it.

You might be surprised to hear how popular the term “natural” has become on product packaging. The Wall Street Journal reported last November that: “Food labeled “natural” raked in more than $40 billion in U.S. retail sales over the past 12 months. That is second only to food claiming to be low in fat, according to Nielsen.” Just for comparison the organic food and beverage market was valued at $29.22 billion (2011 figures).

Yet, on a second thought, it shouldn’t be that surprising. After all, organic foods need to meet a relatively clear and rigid definition, while “natural” can basically mean anything, as long as it meets the FDA requirements of not containing added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances. In other words, it’s probably cheaper and more profitable to produce and sell a “natural” food product than an organic food product.

So why on earth have PepsiCo and other companies decided to ditch it? In one word: litigation. “In recent years, advocacy groups have filed dozens of lawsuits seeking to ban ‘natural’ claims on foods containing ingredients that seem unnatural, especially those genetically modified,” Prof. Marion Nestle explained on her blog.

And PepsiCo was no exception. As we reported here, PepsiCo announced last July that it will remove the “all natural” moniker from its Naked Juice product line for the foreseeable future and also agreed to pay $9 million to settle a lawsuit, in which the plaintiffs complained the fruit, vegetable and smoothie drinks contained ingredients that did not fit the definition of “natural.”

I believe the company’s latest step of replacing “natural” with “simply” reflects its understanding that using “natural” has just become too risky for its brands and is not worth it anymore, especially when the company is looking to further expand its product portfolio of healthier foods and beverages — which in 2012 represented 20 percent of the company’s net revenue.

Now comes the question of whether we should applaud PepsiCo for ditching the vague and sometimes misleading term “natural,” or be worried that “simply” is just another marketing stunt to get us, the consumers, to believe that the products are healthier whether it’s true or not.

I believe it’s probably neither one of the two. First, PepsiCo probably takes this step apparently not because it understands that “natural” might send the wrong signals to consumers but because of a simple cost-benefit analysis showing the company using “natural” is not that advantageous anymore. If anyone should be applauded here it’s organizations like the Center for Science in the Public Interest that act as watchdogs and file lawsuits against companies that it feels are misusing the term “natural.” These organizations are the ones that transform “natural” from an asset to liability and get companies like PepsiCo to think twice before using it.

At the same time, I should mention that PepsiCo is not only busy with changing the names of its products, but actually tries to make some of them healthier as well. For example, as the WSJ reported, the company’s Frito-Lay snack unit reformulated more than 60 products by 2011, removing “about three dozen artificial ingredients including FD&C Red 40, a food coloring it replaced with beets, cabbage and carrots.”

The bottom line is PepsiCo should be more focused on making its products healthier rather than on making their names better protected from future litigation. Simply, there’s no way around it if PepsiCo is really about “building a profitable and sustainable 21st century corporation” as it claims to be.

Image credit: Walmart

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons The New School of Design. You can follow Raz on Twitter.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

2 responses

  1. Ugh! Another example of the trend to make everything a bland euphemism. While I learned years ago to be suspicious of the no-legal-definition “natural,” I just choke on “simply.” It just means “it just is.” Thus, Pepsi could throw the word on the label of its iconic flagship product, and the translation would be “this mouthful of sugar and chemicals, linked to obesity and strong enough to strip paint off cars, just exists.”

    The best comment on trashing our language with euphemism comes from George Carlin, of course:

  2. I think it is the RIGHT thing to do!
    Who wants to buy something NATURAL for more money and come to find out it contains GMOs.
    I was so upset when i found out BARE NAKED and KASHI(except for the organic products) were just trashy cereals with GMO ingredients…All those natural whole grain commercials really pulled you in and made you believe they were different! NOT!

Leave a Reply