Two bakers wage cookie war for Girl Scout business

May 29 2012 - 9:02am

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Girl scout cookies
Girl scout cookies

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- For more than 50 years, people in eastern Missouri waited every spring for boxes of Trefoils, Samoas and Do-Si-Dos from local Girl Scouts.

But now, when they order those cookies, they come in packages with unfamiliar names like Shortbread, Caramel deLites, and Peanut Butter Sandwiches.

The reason for the change: an enduring cookie turf war between the only two companies licensed by the Girl Scouts to produce the famous cookies, Little Brownie Bakers and ABC Smart Cookie.

When council cookie contracts with one company expire after three years, the other company makes a strong pitch to win the council's business.

But convincing councils to switch can be difficult, in part because local cookie consumers would be confused by new brand names, said Julie Carson, director of sales for the Girl Scout Council of the Nation's Capital, which covers the entire metropolitan area and counties in Northern Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia.

"Our council has been a (Little Brownie) council for 36 years, and (switching) would mean a lot in the area because the consumer would have to get used to a new vendor," Carlson said. "I don't know if we would go through the trauma of introducing a new cookie."

The two bakers use different names and similar but not identical recipes for each of the eight cookie varieties.

While Little Brownie produces the caramel and coconut-studded Samoa, ABC's version -- Caramel deLite -- uses lighter chocolate and less coconut.

Little Brownie produces a powdered sugar lemon cookie known as a Savannah Smile, while ABC produces the Lemonade sandwich cookie.

To overcome the difficulty of a name change, Little Brownie, owned by Kellogg's, and ABC, owned by Interbake Food in Richmond, Va., offer competitive pricing and customer service to sway councils.

Price swayed the Girl Scouts of Eastern Missouri Inc. After 20 years with Little Brownie, they switched to ABC in 2011. But some customers weren't happy with the change, said Patrice Miller, director of sales for the Girl Scouts of Eastern Missouri.

"It was confusing for customers seeing new names, and if you become accustomed to how one company's Thin Mint tastes, the other is going to taste different," Miller said. "But if we pay less for the cookies, that's more programs we could do for the girls."

Miller said the change was also difficult for the girls selling the cookies, who had to learn new names and varieties.

News stories alerted the community to the change.

Ultimately, sales ended up down a little in 2011 compared with the year prior. Initial orders taken by girls canvassing neighborhoods or their parents' workplaces remained the same, while booth sales decreased slightly.

"Customers noticed the package names were different, and it takes people a while to get used to that," Miller said.

Though cookie sales continued to decrease this year -- which Miller attributed to a decrease in membership, which means fewer girls selling -- she said customers were coming around to the new look and taste of the cookies.

"We hear from customers who miss an old variety of cookie or a taste, but they're still very supportive of Girl Scouts and find a cookie in the ABC lineup they like," Miller said.

The Girl Scouts of Eastern Missouri aren't the only council to have switched in recent years. In 2009, the scouts national umbrella organization, Girl Scouts of the USA, merged its 317 existing councils into 109 larger councils, forcing many councils to adopt the cookie supplier of its new partner.

"Although (the council) took it fine, it was confusing to some of the customers who were like, 'what happened to my Lemonade?'" Carlson said.

Those protests are usually short-lived and don't affect long-term sales, said Girl Scouts of the USA sales director Amanda Hamaker.

"A (Little Brownie) Thin Mint and ABC Thin Mint taste different, and if you get people in a room together they're going to fight about which tastes better," Hamaker said. "But after a year we don't hear complaints from councils who have switched."

Some customers who have tasted both versions of Thin Mints say Little Brownie's take lacks the same minty flavor as ABC's. Others argue the Little Brownie Tagalong uses better quality chocolate and peanut butter than the ABC Peanut Butter Pattie.

Hamaker said the girl scouts ensure that both bakers used the highest-quality ingredients and follow the same general formula for each cookie. The detailed recipes are the company's property, she said.

Having two bakers is good for the girl scouts, Hamaker said, because the competition helps drive down prices.

"Healthy competition drives innovation and prices," she said. "And Girl Scout councils want a choice."

Distributed by MCT Information Services

 

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