When Geoff Freeman became the president and CEO of the then-GMA in August 2018, there were a lot of changes needed to be made to restore the trade group to the position it once had.
In decades past, the group had the clout of the entire CPG food and beverage industry. It became the preeminent group representing those who made what people ate and drank, and had lobbied for the creation of the Food and Drug Administration, helped develop UPC symbols and piloted SmartLabel.
But as the group started to work against more transparent labeling policies about five years ago, it alienated several members. Campbell Soup was the first to leave the group, with then-CEO Denise Morrison saying at the 2017 Investor Day that the decision was based on “purpose and principles” dealing with consumer transparency.
“We had the experience of finding ourselves at odds with some of the positions,” she said.
Soon after, the floodgates opened, though many of the companies that left the trade group didn’t give their reasons. Nestlé and Dean Foods, which was then the nation’s largest dairy producer, were the next to drop out. Mars also left the group in 2017, telling Politico the company could “more effectively drive our business objectives and meaningful progress for our categories and consumers by working with other like-minded companies and through other sector-specific trade associations and collaborations.” Weeks later, Tyson and Unilever left the group, soon followed by Hershey and Cargill, then Kraft Heinz and the former DowDuPont.
Freeman brought a new attitude to the trade group. Instead of focusing on divisive things like individual ingredients and nutritional issues, he said in a 2019 interview with Food Dive that he would instead use the group to take action on the big issues everyone could agree on. The group’s priorities became smart regulation, supply chain issues, building and maintaining consumer trust and sustainability. The pivot continued with CBA’s new name, which officially change in 2020. When the name change was announced, Freeman said in an interview it was changed to be more inclusive, since household brands are also members, as well as clearly show the issues the group tackled would not only be food-and-beverage-centric.
Recently, the group has been much less controversial. Major initiatives include quantifying the impact of the CPG industry, which is responsible for one in 10 U.S. jobs, putting forward policy proposals and research on recycling, lobbying for policies that kept manufacturers in business amid the COVID-19 pandemic, pushing for clear and uniform federal regulations on CBD and advocating for food manufacturers to have priority in COVID-19 vaccinations.
In the 2019 interview with Food Dive, Freeman said his goal for the organization was to build a group that had extraordinary value for its members. He said he was confident there would be no more high profile departures. Campbell Soup is the first high-profile return. In a statement about the return emailed to Food Dive, Campbell Soup said, “Consumer Brands is driving a focused, consumer-centric agenda that aligns well with Campbell’s goals, and we look forward to contributing to the direction of the association during this pivotal time for the industry.”
Even with the return of Campbell Soup, there is still a ways for CBA to go — in 2017, the group had about 250 members and today it has 73 — but the breach may be on its way to being repaired.
In 2019, Freeman told Food Dive he had spoken with every company that had left the trade group, as well as those that had never joined.
“There’s no doubt that there are hard feelings out there and it’s going to take time and we’re gonna have to prove that we are who we say we are,” Freeman said then. “But I can tell you that I have, based on the conversations I’ve had, I am extremely confident that when we demonstrate that we can deliver on this new value proposition, you will see a [CBA] membership that is broader, more diverse and more united than you’ve ever seen it before.”