retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

ConAgra got a lesson in 21st century transparency recently, according to a story in the New York Times, when it sponsored a dinner for New York area bloggers.

The bloggers received invitations to dinner at a Manhattan brownstone, and were promised that they would enjoy a “delicious four course meal,” sangria made by TV chef George Duran, an education in food industry trends from “Supermarket Guru” Phil Lempert, and “an unexpected surprise.”

The surprise, as it turned out, was that the lasagna served was “Three Meat and Four Cheese Lasagna by Marie Callender’s, a frozen line from ConAgra Foods,” the Times writes. “Hidden cameras at the dinners, which were orchestrated by the Ketchum public relations unit of the Omnicom Group, captured reactions to the lasagna and to the dessert, Razzleberry Pie, also from Marie Callender’s.”

The story notes that this kind of scheme had been done before, by companies such as Pizza Hut that used the results for commercials. But the difference was that those events were attended by regular consumers - not by bloggers who see themselves as journalists, some of whom reacted angrily and publicly to what they viewed as a deception.

The story reminded me of an old story that I heard years ago - about how Citibank decided to test the notion of charging customers who used a real live teller as opposed to an ATM, but did so in the Upper West Side neighborhood in Manhattan that had the highest concentration of New York Times reporters. The journalists were not amused, they wrote about the test in not-very-complimentary terms, and the initiative soon died.

I’m not sure if this story is true or just apocryphal, but the ConAgra situation points out a 21st century reality - that these days, everybody has to be treated like they are a New York Times reporter. If you do something that people see as deceptive or dishonest, the odds are that it will become very public very quickly. And suddenly you’re doing damage control and answering questions from actual Timesreporters.

In some ways, it’s too bad. You have to be so careful about such things that it is almost inevitable that innovation could be stifled, because a failed effort could become as public as a success.

And while I probably would have not been amused had I traveled into NYC for what turned out to be a warmed up lasagna dinner, I’m sympathetic to ConAgra, its agency, and to Phil Lempert. (Full disclosure: Phil is an old friend of mine, and I wrote for “Supermarket Guru” for a number of years.) The blogging world remains new territory, and it hasn’t been fully mapped out yet ... which means that it is a lot more likely that people may stumble along the way. They weren’t doing anything malicious. They just misjudged the audience. That happens.

Still, it is an important and Eye-Opening lesson. When it comes to transparency, the best policy is to try to anticipate every possible reaction ... and to know that sometimes, things come around and bite you on the .... well, you know.
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