Does Kraft's PR Play for Cadbury Remind You of Something?

Group Behind Marketer's Aggressive Push Also Orchestrated InBev's A-B Takeover

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- If Kraft Foods' aggressive PR strategy behind its unsolicited $16.8 billion bid for Cadbury looks a bit familiar, it's because the marketer is pulling from a successful playbook: InBev's takeover of Anheuser-Busch.

Undeterred that its initial bid was turned down, the No. 2 global food conglomerate has embarked on a print and online communications barrage in its bid to sway shareholders that just so happens to be orchestrated by Brunswick Group, which worked with InBev on last year's boardroom brawl.

Kraft CEO Irene Rosenfeld stars in a series of fluffy videos explaining the takeover.
Kraft CEO Irene Rosenfeld stars in a series of fluffy videos explaining the takeover.

Asked whether its success with InBev landed Brunswick this assignment, a Kraft spokeswoman said: "Based on referrals and their strong track record of success, we believe they are a great fit to assist us in our communications about the possible combination with Cadbury."

That earlier communications effort was certainly worth emulating, as it managed to cast InBev -- best known for savage cost-cutting -- as a sympathetic party in its bid to take over a beloved American institution. This time around, Kraft and Brunswick clearly are not straying from that strategy.

InBev's bid for A-B was backed by a detailed microsite full of fact sheets about the proposal and video messages from its CEO. Kraft's version offers almost identical content. Much as InBev CEO Carlos Brito did, the videos feature CEO Irene Rosenfeld fielding softball questions about the transaction from a faux interviewer, and both Q&A's touch topics such as the opportunity to create a "global powerhouse," respect for the company being acquired and the extolling of a natural cultural fit.

Moreover, both CEOs also confessed love for their coveted brands: InBev's Mr. Brito expressed his affection for brand Budweiser, while Ms. Rosenfeld copped to enjoying Cadbury bunnies "on a seasonal basis."

'Clearly good communicators'
Claire Koeneman, president of MWW's Financial Relations Board, which specializes in major transactions, said she was impressed at the level of detail Kraft has made available, and the speed with which it has done so. She added that it is clear that Kraft has reached out to Cadbury stakeholders, a key component of any major buyout. It also seemed likely, she said, that Kraft had worked out embargo arrangement with the financial press in order to command the Tuesday-morning news cycle.

"They're clearly good communicators, rather than the shades of gray with some transactions," she said. "They're taking the opposite approach, which I think will win them points with the media." (To be sure, Kraft's media team has been in overdrive this week, responding quickly to any request, no matter how small.)

While the ultimate goal is to sway shareholder opinion, to do so relies heavily on getting major financial publications to shape perceptions. And like InBev before it, Kraft's early overtures seem to so far have secured highly favorable coverage, such as a feature fronting today's Wall Street Journal Marketplace section on how one Cadbury factory town in England is pulling for Kraft's bid to prevail. And The New York Times today offered up a 900-word piece on Ms. Rosenfeld's "history of success."

Beyond news coverage, Kraft is taking its case to Wall Street analysts, both via conference call and by extending a previously scheduled presentation at Barclay's Back to School Consumer Conference. There, Ms. Rosenfeld bluntly told analysts the Cadbury's prospects as an independent company were limited.

But if Kraft is trying to reprise InBev's role, Cadbury doesn't appear willing to repeat some of A-B's gaffes. The brewer responded to the first month of InBev's PR overdrive with little more than silence; Cadbury has been considerably more proactive.

The confectioner promptly rejected Kraft's initial overtures with a terse statement, citing confidence in its current leadership and condemning Kraft's offer as too low. "The Board is confident in Cadbury's standalone strategy and growth prospects as a result of its strong brands, unique category and geographic scope and the continued successful delivery of its Vision into Action plan. The Board believes that the proposal fundamentally undervalues the Group and its prospects."

Push may be unneeded
While public companies in the crosshairs of a hostile takeover are often limited in what they can say publicly, Cadbury's perspective is finding its way into press coverage. Today's Journal piece on the "war of words" heating up between the two sides said the board's rejection of Kraft's offer was "almost unanimous" and that there were also "people in the Cadbury camp" who said the Kraft offer won't force Cadbury to sell.

Ultimately, however, Kraft may not wind up needing the full force of its blitz. James Lee, president of the Lee Strategy Group, a Century City, Calif.-based investor relations boutique, balked at the comparison between InBev's acquisition of Anheuser-Busch and what's transpired so far between Kraft and Cadbury. "That was more of a knife fight, and this is more of a wedding," he said.

He also noted that Kraft seems to have chosen a particularly opportune time to spring a takeover bid. Hedge-fund managers are beginning their fourth quarter and are looking to buy, and after a quiet year for M&A, Wall Street is hungry for share-price boosting deals.

Corporate-communications experts said they expect social media to be a greater factor in takeover fights in the future, though, to date, how the current PR push is going over with John Q. Public is hard to tell from social-media channels. A search of Facebook found no sign of the "Save Anheuser-Busch" pages that attracted thousands of boosters during that fight, and most Twitter traffic concerning the proposed Kraft/Cadbury deal seemed to be merely pointing out its existence, with one user weighing in against it on the grounds that "I don't want my Cadbury Fruit and Nut chocolate bar made by the Cheese Whiz folks!"

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