Food blogger and activist Vani Hari has gotten Chick-Fil-A, Kraft and Subway to drastically change their food practices in the past few years. Her latest victory is Chick-Fil-A’s agreement to purchase only chicken that hasn’t been treated with antibiotics, and Subway’s to remove a chemical used as a dough condition that is also found in shoe soles and yoga mats. This all began when Hari wrote a 2011 post titled “Chick-Fil-A or Chemical-Fil-A?” that revealed their typical chicken sandwich contained almost 100 ingredients. Chick-Fil-A invited her over to their headquarters and agreed to remove artificial dyes and high fructose corn syrup last December. This trend is part of what James Surowiecki at The New Yorker notes as the “twilight of the brands.”
It’s a truism of business-book thinking that a company’s brand is its “most important asset,” more valuable than technology or patents or manufacturing prowess. But brands have never been more fragile. The reason is simple: consumers are supremely well informed and far more likely to investigate the real value of products than to rely on logos… Only twenty-five per cent of American respondents in a recent Ernst & Young study said that brand loyalty affected how they shopped.
We would disagree with Surowiecki in that it is not quite that brands are disappearing, but that companies have to daily earn and prove their brands, or, as we would put it, their reputation. Chick-Fil-A and Subway rightly recognized that they could not simply rely on the formal authority of their brands, but that they had to earn their reputation. This goes beyond their product, but their treatment of customers, suppliers and the wider environment. Technology is expanding our criteria of brand-assessment; we take into account not just the apparent quality of the product, but the values embedded in them.
It is not that technology has given us new values, but rather that it has awakened them by providing us more information about the companies from which we purchase. The more we see into how the “sausage gets made” at a company, the more we start to care about how exactly it is made. It is noteworthy that Vani Hari wrote on Facebook in response to Fox News’ coverage of her campaign, “Great coverage of our work #FoodBabeArmy! But, I am not just one person and this is proof we can collectively change the food system faster than any governmental agency if we work together.” Indeed, even a decade ago, the standard response to unhealthy food practices would be to turn to government regulatory agencies. But stories like Hari’s are becoming more and more common. Technology is carving an alternative, citizen-based path to social change. It enables Hari to gather over 42,000 Twitter followers and mobilize them to hold companies morally accountable. It enables her zest for truth and passion for health to reach a public platform. It enables us to be more human. This story is an example of the global trend towards the democratization of power and the interdependent nature of our society, where corporations are dependent on the actions of one blogger.