'Mom-and-Pop' Brands Run by Corporate Giants

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Sometimes it's hard being a multinational corporation. Competitors are always gunning for you, regulators henpeck you about your every move and those underfed little activists think you're out to turn the world into a Dumpster and grind the mountains into your private parking lot. Sometimes you just want to hide out and remind people what they liked about you in the first place — what good thing made you into the big bad creature that you are.

This is why Starbucks(Nasdaq: SBUX - News) lovers chuckle a little bit when friends say they prefer Seattle's Best — which Starbucks bought in 2003.

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This is why Bud drinkers don't get too upset with beer snobs who sneer at them from behind pints of Boddington's or Bass — which Bud maker Anheuser-Busch Inbev(NYSE: BUD - News) also owns. It's why someone who offers a coworker a Life-Savers mint and is rebuffed in favor of another coworker with a can of Altoids can hold their head high, as their halitosis-stricken workmate just turned down one Mars mint for another.

With Halloween little more than two weeks away, TheStreet took a quick stroll among the retail shelves and found 11 big bad companies hiding in the cutest little costumes. As is the case with most store-bought Halloween disguises, some do a better job of hiding one's identity than others:

 

Costume: Tom's of Maine
Company: Colgate-Palmolive (NYSE: CL - News)

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For starters: Yep, Colgate-Palmolive makes vegan toothpaste. The bucolic back story features Tom and Kate Chappell starting up Tom's in Kennebunk, Maine, in 1970 with $5,000 in seed money. They made toothpaste, soap and deodorant without animal testing and without animal product. They also took $100 million from Colgate-Palmolive for an 84% stake in the company, but kept the remaining 16% to ensure the products and formulas would remain intact. The Chappells get a nest egg and their integrity, Colgate-Palmolive gets to put some polish on its environmental image. Consumers seem none the wiser.

 

Costume: Kashi
Company: Kellogg (NYSE: K - News)

Ah, Kashi. Back in 1984, the company wanted to change the world — or at least the American diet — through the power of whole grain and seeds. Its seven whole grains and sesame became a status symbol for self-aware but easily stereotyped consumers across the country. By the end of the millennium, however, even the big boys wanted a piece of the "natural foods" movement that the La Jolla, Calif.-based company was selling. Kellogg bought Kashi in 2000 and, while Kashi remains "independently operated" — meaning it's really hard to find a reference to Kellogg on its boxes — it's still fun to picture Tony the Tiger yelling "They'rrre grains!" or the look on Toucan Sam's face when his nose takes a wrong turn into the sesame silo.

 

Costume: Nantucket Nectars
Company: Dr. Pepper Snapple Group (NYSE: DPS - News)

One day back in 1990, a couple of guys named Tom (First and Scott) who'd graduated from Brown University the year before went down to Nantucket, Mass., and opened a floating convenience store called Allserve. They started mixing juice in a blender and, in seven years, expanded their business from a few flavors to a $30 million enterprise. The take was up to close to $60 million by 2002,when Cadbury Schweppes backed a truckload of cash up to the door opened by the Toms and the Ocean Spray collective. The brand ended up in the hands of Dr. Pepper Snapple Group years later and, while the Toms' Juice Guys Juice Bar still stands on Nantucket and their voices still grace the product's commercials, the drinks and their organic counterparts are now brewed and bottled in containers similar to Snapple's at the Snapple facility in Rye Brook, N.Y. While that's little more than 250 miles away from its place of birth, Nantucket Nectars is far removed from its humble roots

 

Costume: Stonyfield Farms
Company: Groupe Danone

Roughly 27 years ago, Stonyfield Farm was just a little organic farming school in Wilton, N.H. In 2001, Groupe Danone — makers of the Dannon yougurt and Evian water brands — bought 40% of the company. That stake was kicked up to 85% in 2003, but the company maintained its healthy organic image by donating a 10th of its proceeds to environmental causes and maintaining a pesticide-free 130,000 acres of family farmland across America. The company's packaging, website and mission still screams down-home organic, but some of the company's recent stumbles resemble those of a multinational. In 2008, Stonyfield voluntarily recalled several batches of blueberry yogurt after consumers complained about finding plastic and glass bits in the mix. Last year, the company recalled containers of its plain yogurt because it could contain food-grade sanitizer.

 

Costume: Schwinn
Company: Dorel Industries

Once a successful, iconic American bicycle brand, Schwinn doesn't have one model manufactured in the U.S. After declaring bankruptcy in 2001, Schwinn was sold to Pacific Cycle. Pacific, in turn, was bought by Dorel Industries, a Canadian company that also makes furniture and baby products. The Schwinn bikes consumers see today at Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT - News), Target (NYSE: TGT - News), the Sports Authority and elsewhere are built in Taiwan and China and have little in common with the company's history — besides a nameplate.

 

Costume: Ben & Jerry's:
Company: Unilever (NYSE: UL - News)

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Every once in a while, the nation gets a reminder that Ben & Jerry's isn't a funky, freewheeling ice cream company from Vermont, but a small cog in a very big system. The last clue came in September, when Ben & Jerry's vowed to stop referring to its ice cream and frozen yogurt as all-natural when the Center for Science in the Public Interest found corn syrup and other less-than-natural ingredients in its Cherry Garcia and Chunky Monkey, among other varieties.

 

It's been nearly 10 years since Unilever bought up shares of the company and effectively supplanted Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, and while moves to make the brand more eco-friendly and continued commitment to flavors such as the Barack Obama-themed "Yes Pecan" and the gay marriage-supporting "Hubby Hubby" keep the brand rooted, Unilever still casts a cold shadow over the ice cream icon every once in a while.

 

Costume: Stowe Mountain Resort
Company: AIG (NYSE: AIG - News)

What, surprised another big company can hide out in Vermont? If U.S. taxpayers ever feel like they're not getting enough out of the $47.5 billion it paid to get AIG out of the mess it created by churning out credit default swaps, they should just head up to lovely Mount Mansfield in Stowe, Vt., to reap the benefits of the AIG-owned resort's recent $400 million overhaul. (Technically the resort is owned by an AIG spinoff that is, itself, owned by AIG.) There's skiing, snowboarding, shopping, dog sled tours, a spa, a performing arts center and more, with lift tickets starting at $71 for latecomers and topping out at $655 for 10 days of mountain trails and moguls. Is it worth it? It should be, considering the ownership. Fewer companies know more about going downhill fast than AIG.

 

Click here to see the entire list of 'Mom-and-Pop' Brands Run by Corporate Giants

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