Choose your battles

Again quoting Sun Tzu: “If fighting will not result in victory, then you must not fight.” Branding battles have often been lost because organisations fought for a slightly silly reason: because they could. Just because you have the capability and inclination to fight a battle, it doesn’t mean that it’s in your best interests to do so.

The first problem with having a fight is that someone has to lose – and nobody likes to lose. That applies whether it’s a debate, an argument or a public relations war. Secondly, as a general rule: people don’t like changing their minds – which is very much the case with branding where consumers tend to stick with brands they like. Consequently, it is all too easy to end up in a fight where both sides end up with a net loss.


Fortunately for the oil crop industry, there is a series of valuable lessons to be learnt from another large, intensively farmed crop – tobacco. People used tobacco for centuries without being aware of any health negatives. Then, after World War II, studies started to appear – the most famous being in 1950 in the UK, with Sir Richard Doll’s publication linking smoking with cancer.

The first mistake the tobacco industry made was to go into denial – they pretended that there wasn’t a problem. Their second mistake, and a much bigger one at that, was to attack the studies – anything from discrediting the researchers, to funding their own studies with contrary conclusions.

What has happened to the tobacco industry since? The companies are still highly profitable; with annual sales of around US$400 billion worldwide. More significantly it has been decades since any tobacco company even fought the health lobby.

Now they adopt a position of: ‘Yes smoking is bad for you, just like eating sugary food is bad for you or driving a car could get you killed. You are an adult, and these are life choices. You weigh up the risks with how much you like consuming the product.’

The renovation approach has worked well for the tobacco industry. Instead of getting into dramatic battles with the anti-smoking lobby, it has adopted smaller changes in position which appears to have worked better for it.

These lessons are particularly useful for the palm oil industry for the following reasons:

  1. The tobacco industry has been, and still is, the focus of many negative campaigns, both by NGOs and consumer groups.
  2. Tariffs and taxes make a cigarette one of the most highly taxed items in the high street.
  3. The tobacco industry has been taken to court many times over health issues, and has often had to pay multi-million dollar settlements.
  4. Tobacco companies are viewed as big faceless corporations, hungry for profits.
  5. The tobacco industry has over 4 million ha of intensively farmed land, which would otherwise be the natural habitat of indigenous species.

If the tobacco industry could handle these challenges with the strategy of renovation – rather than knocking something down to build something new – then there is a lot of hope for the palm oil industry in weathering its own storms.

Dr Ian Halsall
Author & Researcher


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