From its roots as a small food-packing company in Sharpsburg in 1869, the H.J. Heinz Company has been one of the most iconic and beloved brands in Pittsburgh for generations. Known best for its “57 Varieties” and unmistakable ketchup (no, not catsup), Heinz has evolved into a global powerhouse with its name attached to the home of another beloved Pittsburgh brand, the Steelers.
And, as the Steelers suffer through one of their worst seasons in 40 years, it’s ironic to see their biggest sponsor (at least in terms of visibility) mired in an arguably worse slump. Recent news that McDonald’s would no longer use Heinz ketchup in Pittsburgh stores was just the latest stomach-punch to a company that was already reeling in the court of local public opinion.
To illustrate our point, let’s first look at how the Heinz Company was perceived by Pittsburgh-area residents until recently. We began surveying consumers in the Pittsburgh Designated Marketing Area (DMA) about the favorability of the Heinz brand in April of 2012.
From April 30, 2012 through July 31, 2013, Heinz enjoyed some of the highest positive approval numbers we have ever seen for a corporate brand. A full 77% of our 10,886 Pittsburgh respondents had a positive view of Heinz, while a mere 5% had a negative view. It’s also worth noting that only 18% expressed no opinion, an exceptionally low number when researching brand approval.
Even as we tracked these numbers through the February announcement of Heinz’s sale to Berkshire Hathaway and their official take-over in June, numbers dipped only slightly. Optimism surrounding Berkshire’s commitment to keep the company in Pittsburgh kept brand sentiment high.
But then the numbers began to sour like a Heinz dill pickle. In August, Heinz announced the termination of over 600 local Pittsburgh jobs, even after numerous smaller unpublicized layoffs in the years prior. The appointment of a former Burger King Executive as CEO of Heinz and other ties of the Heinz ownership group to Burger King resulted in a decision by uber-popular McDonald’s to severe ties. In Pittsburgh, the impact of all this negative publicity on public opinion has been astonishing.
In the last five weeks, the number of Pittsburgh-area consumers who have a Very Positive view of the Heinz brand dropped by more than half from 43% to only 19%. Overall positive sentiment fell 20 points. Meanwhile, overall negative sentiment quadrupled, jumping from 5% to 20% in less than a calendar quarter. Equally telling is the noticeable jump in respondents reporting No Strong Opinion. This is a sign of growing apathy toward the brand, an unsettling sign for any brand marketer.
Just like the Rooneys and their beleaguered football team, only time will tell if the golden touch of Warren Buffett can turn Heinz around. Frankly, Pittsburgh is a small consumer market in the grand scheme of Heinz’s overall business; these numbers may mean nothing to Heinz’s shareholders even if local sentiment never rebounds. Still, it would be sad to see a brand with such a strong connection to Pittsburgh consumers fall further out of favor. Here’s hoping they can win Pittsburghers back.