A Krafty Lesson About 21st Century Consumers


The Golden Triangle is an interesting management concept. This magical object allows you to easily build any two sides. The third side, however, is more difficult, and expensive. “Good, Fast, Cheap” is one of the most common golden triangles. Want a good fast car (maybe a Tesla)… not Cheap! A fast and cheap computer… it may not be good, and break after a week. How about a tablet? Well built (good), and cheap? Bet it’s not fast!

The economy is filed with these Triangles. When these triangles fail, it can have catastrophic consequences! Today, we will look at a specific economic Triangle that drives how corporations create and sell products.

  • Consumers: In Capitalism, consumers are the most important element of Supply & Demand. All demand starts with the consumer. When consumer need is not met, that market may simply fade away.
  • Producers: When individuals or corporations identify an unmet need, they race to create new products to fill that need. Some can identify needs purely by gut instinct, but most require marketing firms, survey data, and experts to convert ideas into products.
  • Investors: Producers (especially start-ups) need investors to finance new products. Investors, in turn, want assurance that consumers will buy the product. Some investors just want a profit, while others demand a good reputation, socially positive activities, protection of the environment, and more.

Simple, right? Yet, it can be incredibly difficult to build and manage this three-sided relationship. Consider the Oldsmobile. Once an icon of the American car industry, by the late 1980s the brand lacked excitement. Thir reaction was to launch a new ad campaign, “It’s not your father’s Oldsmobile!” Millennials may be asking, “What’s an Oldsmobile?” That’s a great question! Oldsmobile is a multi-billion dollar brand went extinct in 2004. Which is the big “ah-ha” for today’s discussion!

Should designing new cars have been given a higher priority than new ads? Maybe. Too many big corporations fail to address life or death problems, even when they are aware of them. If industry giants can’t solve their problems, how can smaller firms survive? Let’s examine Kraft-Heinz, one of America’s best-known food companies, and a corporation in decline. Let’s see what we can learn!

Big companies always want to be bigger, so in 2015 Kraft and Heinz (two of America’s biggest food companies) merged. Change was coming to America’s food industry. Younger customers no longer trusted big food companies. Millennials want small farms and organic products. They don’t want genetically modified, chemical-filled, highly processed foods. With hundreds of iconic brands between them, Kraft-Heinz could feel secure against the growing winds of change. Or so they thought.

Heinz was founded in 1869. Before refrigeration. Before even commercial canning. Heinz dominated preserved foods… pickles, relishes, condiments, and foods made with brine or vinegar. American consumers could buy pickles and sauces from Heinz rather than making these products themselves, saving homemakers millions of hours of work. More importantly, the move from home to industrial kitchens meant far fewer cases of botulism and other deadly forms of food poisoning.

Kraft was created in 1923. Originally, it was a cheese company at a time when almost no homes had refrigeration. Soft, mild cheeses spoiled quickly. Cheeses that lasted a long time were often quite pungent, and not to everyone’s taste.  Processed cheese (like Kraft’s Velveeta), were mild but long-lasting. Even without refrigeration! Factory processed foods gave America a miracle food and a good value!

Homemakers no longer needed to work from sun-up to sun-down. Soon other manufacturers came up with new miracle foods. In a poorer world, food that never spoils was a great thing! But we soon learned that food additives have consequences. “Forever Food” may be devoid of nutrients, and taste.

Consumers once trusted big companies and valued their products. Now the opposite is true. Big corporations know this. They’ve learned to create small firms, or at least the illusion of small firms, to introduce “all-natural” and artisanal products. In the short term, this may work, but consumers when consumers discover the big corporate ownership of those “small firms”, they become even more cynical.

In the 20th-century big food, firms developed scientific testing facilities to identify new foods preferences. Like Kraft “Easy-Cheese”, a spray can of processed cheese. I doubt that customers specifically asked for aerosol cheese. But surveys, marketers and food engineers turned perceived needs into this product. And Easy-Cheese was a success… for a while.

Today aerosol cheese is out. WAY OUT! All chemical-filled foods are out. Infinite shelf-life is no longer a consumer desire. Kraft executives have known this for a long time. Yet, they continue to manufacture foods from 50 years ago. Food designed for consumers that no longer exist.

Kraft’s corporate reluctance to eliminate or change venerable but no longer desirable products has had consequences. Kraft, not surprisingly, was reluctant to inform stockholders about their downward spiral. But as a public corporation, this reluctance was bordering on misrepresentation to shareholders. Regulators demanded action, Kraft’s stock price tumbled, the CEO and the head of marketing were removed. Most recently, Kraft wrote off $14 billion in corporate value. Consequences.

Consumer demand changes rapidly. Kraft-Heinz must have a board of directors that understands consumer demand and can act quickly. Did you know that women shop for groceries twice as often as men? Then why is the Kraft-Heinz Board of Directors more than 80% male (mostly, older men)? Companies run by people who don’t buy their own products can easily fall out of touch with customer demand.

When a Board of Directors lacks diversity, it becomes risk-averse. A lack of diversity means a lack of personal experience with new (or different) markets and products. New technology and globalization are accelerating change. Big corporations that are still operating like 20th-century firms will struggle in the coming decades, and some will fail.

Not just Kraft, but most big food companies are struggling with the all-natural, no chemical, cruelty-free requirements of the modern consumer. Newcomers like Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger seemingly came out of nowhere and are now worth billions of dollars. Established brands should have identified the huge (and unmet) demand for plant-based meat products. Established brands like… Kraft-Heinz.

Kraft was wall aware of the market. 15 years ago Kraft bought Boca Burger, a leading plant-based “meat” producer. Clearly, Kraft could identify food trends. The buy-out increased BocaBurger’s sales from $40 million to $70 million in its first year. But in the last 5 years? We are in the middle of the hottest plant-meat market the world has ever seen, yet Boca Burger lost half of their market share. Kraft should have dominated this market. Yet Boca Burger is headed towards obscurity.

This isn’t just a food industry issue. Big car companies face major changes as vehicles become electric and self-driving. Yet today’s innovation and excitement often come from new, small firms. In an age of incredibly fast transformation, big corporations have an Achilles heel. They cannot move quickly. Add to this the often smothering culture of the big corporation, and even when small firms are bought by big corporations, the spirit of innovation may not survive. Small and innovative “DNA” can’t always be transplanted.

Good, Fast, and Cheap have been the legs of the golden triangle for Kraft and Heinz for the last century. These are probably still the right legs, but the definitions have changed. Good means more than “stays fresh (forever)” or “made in a sterile factory”. Organic, natural, no preservatives, sustainable… have all moved up in importance for consumers. other large swings in definition and desire will follow. Will today’s big corporations be able to keep up with these changes?

Probably not. Many very recognizable brands died in the transition to the 21st century. Arthur Andersen, ASK Jeeves, Blockbuster, Borders, Compaq Computers, Friendster, General Cinema, Kodak, MCI, Netscape, Pontiac, RadioShack, Saturn, TWA, US Airways, the WIZ, and Woolworths… to name just a few brands that could not survive, or could not survive on their own. As the speed of transformation increases, so too will the speed at which old corporations die.

What do you think? Will we see most of the old corporations die off in the next few decades? Is there still time to save old corporate America? SHOULD we even try? What do you think?


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