The Oreo brand tweeted twice on August 10. The first tweet hyped its Mega Stuf cookies; the second one lobbied Apple for a set of Oreo-specific emoji.
— OREO Cookie (@Oreo) August 10, 2021
At the same time, about 1,000 workers for Nabisco (which makes Oreos and is owned by Mondelēz International) went on strike in Portland, Oregon. This was followed in subsequent weeks by workers striking in Chicago; Aurora, Colorado; Richmond, Virginia; and Norcross, Georgia. At issue in the ongoing strike are a set of proposed changes in shift lengths and overtime rules, which union members claim could result in wage losses of up to $40,000 per year.
In today’s 24-hour media environment, the dissonance is stark between Oreo’s fun, playful online persona and the harsh conditions that these workers are pushing back against. This is evidenced by responses to Oreo’s tweets, which were peppered with references to the strike. It’s a tightrope that companies have to walk, as everything from supply chains to political donations has the potential to blow up online and reflect negatively on the brand.
I spoke to one senior marketing executive who, having worked in similar companies, acknowledged that this is a no-win situation for a brand like Oreo and its marketers. Because even though externally everything the parent company does reflects on the brand, inside the company these issues are completely out of marketers’ hands. If a strike like this continued, the executive said, “I’d probably be feeling, ‘Oh my god, I’m fucked.'” This is further compounded by the fact that big names like Danny DeVito and Bernie Sanders have voiced support for the Mondelēz workers, drawing attention and news coverage far beyond the company’s factories.
Mondelēz spokesperson Laurie Guzzinati told Fast Company that the ongoing negotiations are a business issue, and the company is maintaining its brands’ voice and tone. “For the brands, like Oreo and Ritz, their marketing and engagement with the consumer is grounded in their brand purpose and what they represent to their consumers, and the brands are continuing to do so.”
I stand in solidarity with @BCTGM workers in Oregon, Colorado, and Virginia who are on strike for a fair contract and for decent working conditions. If Nabisco can rake in billions of dollars in corporate profits, they can afford to treat their workers with dignity and respect.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) August 18, 2021
A similar challenge was faced recently by Frito-Lay, which owns brands like Doritos, Tostitos, and Ruffles that all have goofy, fun advertising. The company faced a 20-day worker strike in July over “suicide shifts,” or shifts when workers put in eight-hour days plus four hours of overtime before returning the next day. It’s unclear what role public pressure from media and social media played in the dispute, but Anthony Shelton, president of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (the same union that’s representing the Mondelēz workers) told CNN that the new Frito-Lay contract—which eliminates these shifts—showed “that union working people can stand up against the largest food companies in the world and claim victory for themselves, their families, and their communities.”
Ruth Milkman, history and sociology professor at CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, says one advantage for workers right now is increased awareness and public support. A 2020 Gallup poll found that 65% of Americans approve of labor unions—the highest percentage in 16 years—and that union support among young adults hit 71%.
“The question is whether the union can get enough public attention in highlighting the disconnect [between brand image and worker demands],” Milkman says. “Not easy these days, but social media can be quite effective, and the low cost is a big plus, too. Labor has increasingly deployed this in its campaigns, mostly in organizing new workers, as opposed to this sort of campaign defending longtime union members.”
Back in October, before the presidential election, Oreo dropped a new ad called “The Fair,” in which a feud between two stuffed toys—an elephant and a donkey—is set aside in order to cooperate for a little kitty. While its obvious intent was to diffuse the divisive politics surrounding the election (great job!), the message is adaptable beyond a White House vote.
— OREO Cookie (@Oreo) October 30, 2020
It just needs a slight tweak to the tagline: “Life’s sweeter when we come together over shift lengths and overtime rules.”