Thirteen-year-old Baje Charman is, it turns out, far from alone. Her complaint that Weet-Bix are not what they used to be prompted a deluge of messages of support to the Herald on Sunday. Whatever the age of the writer, the message was much the same. Weet-Bix tasted worse, was crumblier and soaked up more milk than previously.
Unfortunately, the message from Sanitarium, the maker of the wheaten breakfast cereal, has also remained much the same. There has, it says, been no altering of the recipe used to make Weet-Bix, and the biscuit remains as hard as ever. Sanitarium seems to attach little importance to the fact that, with the closure of its quake-damaged Christchurch factory, some product is being brought in from Australia and more is being made in Auckland. It has, however, begun an investigation to see what, if anything, has happened to Weet-Bix.
Clearly, something has changed. The many people who echoed Baje Charman's complaint confirm as much. It is now incumbent on Sanitarium to get to the bottom of the matter, spell out to consumers what has happened, and fix the problem as quickly as possible. If it does not do this to the total satisfaction of the multitude of Weet-Bix connoisseurs, there will surely be consequences.
For an example of what might happen, Sanitarium needs only to look back three years to the fate that befell Cadbury. That company was the giant of local chocolate manufacturing, and for six years had, according to an annual Readers Digest NZ survey, been New Zealand's most trusted brand. All that changed when, as a cost-cutting exercise, it replaced cocoa butter with palm oil, the production of which caused rainforest destruction in Southeast Asia.
The barrage of consumer complaints was so sustained that Cadbury was forced to stop using palm oil. Worse, there was a mass exodus of chocolate lovers to Whittaker's. Many never returned to Cadbury, and the lingering public disapproval was highlighted by the company's slump to 36th place in the 2010 most trusted brand survey.
Already, some Weet-Bix eaters have switched to Vita-Brits. This may not worry Sanitarium unduly because it also makes that product. But there are plenty of other breakfast cereals on supermarket shelves.
Sanitarium says it has nothing to hide. It is time, therefore, to tell consumers exactly what is going on and what it plans to do about it.