June 18, 2008

The Accountants Didn't Plan for This

THE NEW YORK TIMES reports today that the J.M. Smucker Co., the Ohio-based food conglomerate, plans to move production of the iconic White Lily brand of flour to two factories in the Midwest. The expected result of this is that the company's flour mill in Knoxville, Tenn., will close, as J.M. Smucker bought White Lily from Texas-based C.H. Guenther & Son Inc. in 2006. The unexpected result is that the fans of the baking flour are furious.

Apparently, the flour made in Knoxville and the flour made in the Midwest don't come out the same, and no one knows why. The company insists customers won't notice the difference between the two, but in a blind taste test the Times had carried out, two bakers noticed it clear as day. Now, Southern bakers are anxious and worried that their favorite flour will effectively go the way of the dodo.

Boy, I bet the accountants didn't plan for this.

Although, in a way, it makes sense. After all, the peculiarities of New York's water system are supposedly why it is impossible to replicate New York-style pizza outside of the Tri-State Area. We all know you can't get a decent cheesesteak outside Philadelphia, that you shouldn't order clam chowder outside New England, and that if you want really good Mexican food, you go to the Southwest. Perhaps something similar is at work here. Even if the stuff is made exactly the same way, perhaps there's something different in the inputs, or shipping the flour has an effect; it could be one of a thousand variables that's different.

If I was working for Smucker's, I would embark on an ambitious plan to head this potential marketing disaster off at the pass. First, I'd keep making the flour in Knoxville, but would make sure distribution from the Knoxville plant was solely performed around the South. If the costs of the firm's inputs went up, raise the price accordingly -- or even better, shrink the package. Market the hell out of it as a necessary good for proper bakers.

But I'd also keep making the flour in the Midwest. After all, the company undoubtedly spent a great deal of money getting those plants ready to handle White Lily production, so divert that product to northern markets. Northerners won't know the difference; they have not been exposed to the Southern product and the brand will undoubtedly prove superior to the flours already on the market for baking. If there are differences -- and at least a few folks will notice those -- blame them on the Northern water or the Northern eggs or whatever other input might cause them. If worse comes to worst, just rebrand it.

What? It's not an entirely disingenuous plan, and it will prevent a marketing disaster that could end up as disasterous as New Coke. Plus, it means jobs for the Midwest -- relatively well-paying jobs for hardworking, God-fearing Midwesterners. I don't care what Smucker's does to the flour if it provides jobs for the Midwest. Jobs, jobs, jobs, dammit.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at June 18, 2008 10:58 PM | TrackBack
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