There’s a joke in sports that fans don’t really root for the players, they root for the uniforms. Long gone are the days when players would stay with the same team their entire careers. For decades now, it’s been about chasing the money, and it’s not unusual for a top player in any sport to play for two, three or even four teams in his or her career. In other words, it’s more about the brand (the team name, colors and graphics) than it is the people behind the brand (the players).
This is true in the business world as well. Smithfield is a small town of 8,000 in southeast Virginia that is known for one thing: ham. Dubbed “The Ham Capital of the World,” Smithfield is home to Smithfield Foods, a fortune 500 company that is most famous for its hams. The “Smithfield ham” has been so popular throughout US history that the Virginia legislature passed a law in 1926 declaring that a ham was only a Smithfield ham if were produced within Smithfield town limits. One might even say that Smithfield ham is the pork product equivalent of sparkling wines made in the Champagne region of France. Along with southern fried chicken, Texas barbecue, and Wisconsin cheese, Smithfield hams are truly American food icons.
One small problem: Smithfield hams won’t be made by an American company for much longer.
The Smithfield Name
Say what? It’s true—Shuanghui International Holdings, Ltd. (doesn’t it make your mouth water?), a majority shareholder in China’s largest meat processor, just bought the company for $4.72 billion.
Relax, company management says. Nothing’s going to change locally. “Smithfield, Virginia has nothing to worry about,” assured Smithfield Foods CEO Larry Pope. Shuanghui International Holdings, Ltd. will keep making hams in Smithfield. And that’s probably true. The Associated Press quoted former Smithfield accountant Bob Barnes as saying, “Somebody’s got to own it. It’s just money. It doesn’t bother me as long as it doesn’t change our philosophy, our life, our life, our politics and it doesn’t shut down places.”
That sounds familiar. When Yahoo! announced it was purchasing Tumblr for $1.1 billion in May, CEO Marissa Mayer posted an entry on the blogging site saying, “We promise not to screw it up.” Wow. Way to set the bar!
The business world is full of the stories of companies purchasing brands, only to shut them down intentionally (a recent example would be Disney’s purchase of LucasArts, owners of the Star Wars franchise, only to shut it down and move Star Wars production fully under the Disney label) or unintentionally (see HP’s torturously slow killing of the Palm brand). Was a Volvo still a Volvo when Ford owned the company? Was a Saab really a Nordic wonder car when the brand was owned by GM?
Brands matter. A company’s brand name is like a knight’s honor in medieval Europe—the only credit really worth trading on. When companies use, misuse and abuse brands, they betray trust on every level. The best companies know to keep what works with the brands they acquire, while integrating the two companies’ cultures and systems.
People expect the brands they patronize to stand for consistency, if nothing else. Bob Barnes realizes that a Smithfield ham will still be a Smithfield ham regardless of who owns the company, if the owners remain true to what made the product great. Otherwise, you end up like a mediocre sports franchise, with no players who were on the roster three seasons ago. Just a bunch of people in uniforms. And no one wants to pay to see that.