Columbus Salame: Will Noxious Chemicals Harm Brand?

Categories: Controversy

More appetizing than anhydrous ammonia
​For Bay Area shoppers, staring eye-to-eye into Christopher Columbus' homely visage is a nostalgic experience. Columbus Salame, like Mother's Cookies or even the It's-It, is a company that deserves the title "local institution." Ice cream and cookie companies may hold a more special place in the heart, however, than processed meat facilities.

Also, the good people at Mother's and It's-It never leaked clouds of noxious chemicals into the region, sickening the locals.

Alas, Columbus Salame did just that. Today the Environmental Protection Agency announced the venerable company will fork over nearly $700,000 in penalties on top of a $6 million upgrade to the refrigeration system that twice failed in 2009, leading to around 420 pounds of gas spewing out of the South San Francisco plant.

Association of the term "anhydrous ammonia" with its products does not figure to be a branding boon for Columbus. How to recover? We asked a branding expert.

"What I tell my clients is: 'Let's use the truth. It's what everybody doesn't expect!'" says consultant Rob Frankel. "San Francisco is a very forgiving community -- if you're truthful."

If Frankel were hired to right Columbus' ship, he'd emphasize their 95-year history in the Bay Area -- a history with notably few instances of sickening the neighbors with ammonia leaks. "In as much as this isn't a repeated thing, it sounds like an anomaly," he says. "I think what they have to say is, 'Hey, we've been here since 1917, we were feeding your great-grandfathers. We'll do everything we can to restore the trust you knew and enjoyed with us for the past 95 years.' That's the right way to handle that."

Anhydrous-Ammonia-Danger-Sign-S-0334.gif
Harmful to brand integrity if released.
This image is property of http://www.mysafetysign.com .
​Columbus paid $850,000 in fines to San Mateo County last year. Today's announcement confirmed EPA fines of $685,446 in addition to the aforementioned $6 million upgrade. 

Other than that, however, Columbus CEO Tim Fallon told us this incident hasn't really bit into the company's bottom line. "The short answer is no," he replied when asked if sales have dropped off in the wake of a well-reported chemical leak. "Columbus has made great products for 95 years, and we'll continue to." He blamed the actual leaks on a "third-party contractor," and pledged that the new refrigeration system in South City has been "overbuilt from a safety standpoint."

Fallon's claim that Columbus' brand hasn't been scarred was backed up anecdotally by local shopkeepers.

"Oh God no," one longtime Bay Area grocer said when asked if the 2009 spills had affected sales. "I'm sure people in their neighborhood are upset, but, frankly, it hasn't touched business here at all."


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