Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Brand Iconicity vs. Anti-Consumption Well-Being Concerns: The Nutella Palm Oil Conflict

Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Brand Iconicity vs. Anti-Consumption Well-Being Concerns: The Nutella Palm Oil Conflict

Article excerpt

This article analyzes how an iconic brand is threatened by the societal trend of anti-consumption motivated by well-being. Under scrutiny is the iconic brand Nutella that is recognized worldwide. In France, it has been linked to public debates on well-being concerns about palm oil. Approaching the phenomenon from a consumer perspective and through observational netnography, we investigate the accommodation work undertaken by Nutella lovers in reaction to anti-palm oil attacks. We identify three major accommodation processes: neutralization, interiorization, and adhesion. Each of these processes is constituted of three different practices. Our study shows that while an iconic brand can resist anti-consumption claims thanks to its brand community, such disputes can cause the brand to lose part of its strength. We suggest that anti-consumption for an iconic brand such as Nutella may thus be ambivalent.


It is difficult to debate consumption today without mobilizing the notion of "brand." Brands and related branded products and services are now seen as vessels of a system of cultural meaning (Holt 2004) helping consumers construct their own identities according to how they want to be perceived by the world. Brands transform consumption into an activity that supports the consumer quest for identity through brandfests, brand rituals, brand fandom, and so forth (Kornberger 2010).

The impact of brands on social and cultural life is more apparent in the case of iconic brands that play a strong ideological role in society (Holt 2006). As such, these iconic brands are often the target of anti-consumption actions (Thompson and Arsel 2004). Well-being defenders consider the consumption of products related to these brands as one of the main issues to be actively tackled (Pancer and Handelman 2012) and include unhealthy eating, effective and safe use of the Internet, substance abuse, tobacco consumption, etc. (Kinard and Webster 2010).

Instances of anti-consumption such as brand boycotts and other related actions against a brand (Lee et al. 2011) require researchers to examine the phenomenon from the consumer perspective (Moisio and Beruchashvili 2010). The case of anti-palm oil activist attacks against the famous hazelnut-spread Nutella and the defense organized by pro-Nutella lovers provides a unique opportunity to analyze how iconic brands fall or do not fall victim to anti-consumption movements. The Nutella conflict began from the significant use of palm oil in making the hazelnut spread, associating the brand with concerns linked to environmental damage provoked by palm oil production and negative effects on health from its consumption. Through a netnographic analysis (Kozinets 2010) of web posts dedicated to this pro-Nutella/anti-palm oil dispute, the current research offers a contribution to understanding the subtle cross-over between the ideology of an iconic brand and the new ideological tension emerging in Western societies, namely, the pursuit of well-being through anti-consumption. Our results center on how consumers respond to and accommodate (Russell and Schau 2014) criticisms of the brand that originated from anti-palm oil attacks.


Iconic Brands, Cult Objects, and Their Communities

Iconic brands are the small fraction of brands carrying symbolism that is potent enough to yield influence on society and play an ideological role for consumers. Notable examples include Harry Potter (Brown 2002), Jack Daniel's (Holt 2006), Mountain Dew (Holt 2003), Mini (Brown 2004), Lego (Antorini, Muniz, and Askildsen 2012), and Starbucks (Thompson, Rindfleisch, and Arsel 2006). Indeed, a brand becomes an icon when it delivers innovative cultural expressions by offering a compelling myth, a story that can help people resolve tensions in their lives (Holt 2004). "People use iconic brand symbolism to firm up their identities and to enact the basic status and affiliation processes that are the bread-and-butter functions of all symbols" (Holt 2006, 357). …

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