Big Brands Buying Small Brands

The Lempert Report
June 22, 2017

It's not for their products, but for their brains.

Reuters reports that the world's biggest food players, Hain Celestial, Tyson, Pernod-Ricard, Danone, General Mills, Campbell Soup and Kellogg have launched venture capital units over the past 18 months joining Nestle, Unilever, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Diageo. 

The aim of the strategy, according to Reuters’ interviews with executives, is to buy into - and learn from - the kind of start-up innovation that has become their nemesis, from micro-distilled spirits and cold-pressed juices to kale chips and vegan burgers. 

It is classic Silicon Valley and their venture capital playbook.   

"It's difficult for companies to have the persistence and to replicate the energy and the passion that these early-stage entrepreneurs have," John Haugen, head of General Mills' venture capital arm 301 Inc. told Reuters adding innovation was extremely tough because of how quickly market trends were changing.

In the United States, small "challenger" brands could account for 15 percent of a $464 billion sector in a decade's time compared with 5 percent now, according to Bernstein Research. 

Diageo says the venture arm is changing its culture. The global corporation now makes its marketing managers pitch for their ad budgets, like the entrepreneurs who present at Distill Ventures' laid-back office for 20-30 minutes and get an answer on the spot. Like Shark Tank. 

PwC says food and beverage companies accounted for just 3 percent of the $680 billion spent globally on R&D last year. 

The risk of buying a successful small brand at substantial cost, rather than investing at a very early stage, is that this will rob the target of the very size and independence that made it cool. Reuters points out one oft-cited example as Kashi cereal, an organic food pioneer whose sales tumbled after it was swallowed by Kellogg.