On October 31 of last year, Unilever filed a lawsuit against Hampton Creek, a start-up company that makes Just Mayo, an eggless spread that tastes like mayonnaise, only to drop the suit a month and a half later.

Unilever claimed that Just Mayo was stealing market share from its Hellman’s and Best Foods mayonnaise products through false advertising.  According to Unilever:

  • The logo that Hampton Creek places on its Just Mayo product portrays a white egg with a pea shoot growing through it violates federal law governing trademarks and advertising as it gives consumers the false impression that the product contains eggs.
  • Just Mayo fails to meet the Food and Drug Administration’s 1957 definition of mayonnaise as an emulsion of vegetable oil, an acid like vinegar or lemon and/or juice and an ingredient containing egg yolks.

Hampton Creek countered that its product is labeled “mayo” and not “mayonnaise” and  pointed out that Unilever also uses the word “mayo” to describe products that do not meet the FDA definition of “mayonnaise.”  In addition, Hampton Creek argued that it actively markets the absence of eggs as its products are created with the health-conscious in mind and it therefore is not creating any false impressions.

Unilever’s lawsuit may have been motivated by Just Mayo’s success.  Just Mayo began retailing only last year in Whole Foods and has since expanded to other mainstream outlets such as Wal-Mart Stores, Target, Dollar Tree and Tesco in the UK.  Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick told The Wall Street Journal “We’re competing directly with a company that hasn’t had real competition in decades.”  Tetrick stated: “That’s potentially a surprise that our growth has been so rapid.”

Some commentators on the suit came out in favor of Hampton Creek.  For example, a petition was set up by the celebrity chef and Travel Channel personality, Andrew Zimmern, on Change.org where Zimmern asks Unilever, a $60 billion multinational corporation, to “stop bullying sustainable food companies.”  The petition attracted over a hundred thousand signatures.

When done well, litigation can be an effective, if unpredictable, means of brand promotion.  However, as CovBrands has previously noted, brand owners must be sure of their legal claims before bringing suit, otherwise litigation may end up doing more harm than good.  Unilever’s suit ended up generating positive publicity and grass-roots support for Hampton Creek and Just Mayo, which may have helped Hampton Creek recently raise an additional $90 million in financing and allow it to continue to compete against Unilever for years to come.