Stay Tuned/Why Bother and Other Findings

From Eccentric Flower


stay tuned

Why Bother, and Other Findings
3 June 2007

As promised two entries back, most of today's column is going to be about new product introductions, and possible reasons for same. However, since last week was a bye, and before that was the interlude about avatars, I have a small backlog of items I want to write up before I forget about them. So forgive a brief gallimaufry before we get to the gist.

First off, a rarity for me: A slogan I consider so laughable that for once I won't name the company; I'd like to leave them some shred of their dignity. It says:

Travel should take you places.

Well, yes. Ideally. In fact, there are those of us who kind of thought that was the whole point of travel. If I experienced travel that didn't take me places, I would feel pretty gypped. Imagine driving to the grocery store for fifteen minutes and then getting out of your car and realizing that you were still at your house.

The sad thing is that if you type that phrase, enclosed in quotation marks, into Google, you will find all manner of praise for this campaign, not all of it generated by the company's own press releases. Yes, the advertising world mostly thinks this campaign is a brilliant return to the advertising arena for this particular company. Meanwhile, the public, based on a small and informal poll of peers and weblogs, thinks the campaign is ... exceedingly dumb.

I don't think this is just a case of my being snarky. This isn't like the logo we saw on the side of a meat and seafood supplier's truck which had a cartoon lobster with his arms around the shoulders of a cartoon cow and a cartoon chicken in a group hug - which I immediately characterized as "the love that dare not speak its name" and "they're just good friends, really." That's just me; I'm sure most normal people would see it as a completely innocent, if cutesy, graphic. Meanwhile, I'm willing to bet that most normal people would think the travel slogan is what it is: stupid.

Ad people are not normally quite this clueless about what constitutes quality; this is an inexplicable disconnect. I'm open to theories.

Moving right along ....

I was struck by a "good ad/bad ad" dichotomy the other day during one of my rare bouts of television. You may disagree with me about which is the good ad and which is the bad ad. Humor's like that. Just adds to the fun.

First there was an ad which went like this: It starts with a group of protestors, youngish, with yellow banners and flags, facing off a group of police or soldiers (in black uniforms) in riot gear, full facemasks, etc. Tensions mount. Then one of the protestors hurls ... a bomb? a rock? No. A pillow.

I hate to spoil the clip for you, so I'll give you a moment to go to the Absolut site. You will need Flash, and there is an age check, and you want the sound on. Trust me. The clip is called Protest, you want the full version, and it shouldn't be hard to find. I'd give you better directions but that's the problem with an all-Flash site - no URLs.

Suffice to say that things accelerate and get silly, and as you are amused you are simultaneously disconcerted by what you're laughing at - after all, if that wasn't feathers exploding over that windshield or across someone's torso, your reaction would be considerably different. This is a sort of comedy that's difficult to achieve, period, even more so in something this short.

And then less that two minutes later I was treated to an ad which has Coke executives trying to sue Coke Zero for "taste infringement."

Now, I admit a personal weakness: The sort of humor where you thrust innocent people into bizarre situations without telling them they are being placed against their will into a humor sketch is not amusing to me. It makes me hope that the alleged comedians perpetrating it will be sued so hard by the poor dupe that they will be living the rest of their lives in a cardboard box, and you know how hard-pressed I have to be to voluntarily wish a lawsuit on someone. I will concede this is a personal shortcoming; it just ain't funny to me, and it never has been, from Allen Funt to Sacha Baron Cohen.

But even leaving my personal tastes out of this: First, the idea of "taste infringement" is only funny to two lawyers somewhere in the Coca-Cola legal department. Second, with even some of us normal folk in the trenches being threatened by hordes of overzealous trademark and IP lawyers hither and yon, we are not in a mood to laugh at lawsuit jokes. Third, if you have to try something like this to try to convince people that your useless line-extension product tastes like your real product, it's going to make more than a few people wonder why you bothered with your line-extension product in the first place.

Except there's a very good reason Coke Zero exists. Which brings us, as Tom Lehrer once said, to the mainstream of this evening's symposium.

Wikipedia has a listing for the various varieties of Coca-Cola. At of this writing, there are sixteen, including some I have not seen, some I will never see, and some which may be dead and gone by the time you read this. Coca-Cola brands have become ephemeral. But when Coca-Cola developed its first diet version way back in 1963, the company had a policy of never using the Coca-Cola name on any products but the original - so they called it TaB. What happened that made them decide to dilute their own brand - a brand they had guarded so carefully for so many years?

Well, mostly what happened was that they saw the success of Diet Pepsi, and how stagnant their own marketing for TaB was. (People who drink TaB drink it because they want to drink TaB. This is not necessarily the same group of people who are clamoring to drink a sugar-free version of Coca-Cola.) So Diet Coke came around in 1982 and it was, as you might guess if you are one of the people addicted to it, a huge hit. In fact, last I looked, it was the top-selling diet soda in the world, and in the top five for sales of all soda brands, sugar-free or otherwise.

From then on the floodgates were open.

One must also consider the "New Coke" debacle; one of the company's traditional worries was that if they gave another product the Coca-Cola name and it tanked, it would hurt their main brand. Once that came true, they had less at risk by trying it again; the worst had already happened - and indeed Cherry Coke, the next spin-off, was one of the products that helped them recover. (There are whole books that could be written about the New Coke episode and why it happened; the matter is deeper than it looks. However, I won't write them. I recommend starting with the Wikipedia page, which is long and excellent.)

Interestingly, Diet Coke is held by most of the experts on this kind of thing to be based on the same formula as "New Coke," or at least much closer to that than it is to normal Coca-Cola. It's sweeter. TaB, which is still around in limited quantities because it has a genuine cult following, apparently doesn't taste much like either original or new Coke. So the whole point of the "taste infringement" ads is that Coke Zero - the third sugar-free version of Coca-Cola - is based on the original Coke formula.

But does the public really care what it tastes like?

You may think that overly cynical, but here is what I think is the most important thing that Coke Zero does not contain: The word "diet." "Diet," in this country, means certain things and it means, in the eyes of advertisers at least, a certain audience. Coke Zero is an attempt to sell a diet soda to people who are not especially interested in the concept of a diet. I suspect these people skew younger than the normal Diet Coke audience; I know for sure they skew maler. While I think it's an oversimplification to say "diet drinks sell only to women," I will say that of the various Diet Coke fiends I know in my life - and I know many - only one of them is male.

In short, the reason that Coca-Cola is willing to have three (or more - Diet Coke Plus has just been introduced) sugar-free cola-flavored products which taste at least 80% alike is that, in terms of marketing and audience, they are not alike at all. Not only is each product being sold to a different group of people, it is being sold to those people for somewhat different reasons and in a somewhat different way. It's only those of us who have a bad reductio ad absurdum habit who stop to notice that all of these sugarwaters are much of a muchness. And we don't tend to be big soda buyers anyway.

New product development is a complex, high-risk, high-expense proposition. It's not just a matter of coming up with the idea. You then have to design the package and the manufacturing methods; figure out how you're going to get it into channel - get retailers to stock it so that consumers can see it; and, last but certainly not least, figure out how get consumers to actually buy it - in sufficient quantities, over a long enough period of time, for the product to be financially viable to manufacture. Get any step wrong and you have just wasted a whole lot of time and money.

Yet an astonishing amount of new products are introduced every year. Estimates vary widely, accurate information is hard to come by, and there's a large gap between the number of new products a middleman sees - like the people who buy products for your local supermarket chain - and the number which actually show up on your store's shelves. Still, it isn't unreasonable to suggest that you, the consumer, may see 25,000 or more new products in the course of a year's shopping. In fact, it's possible that's far too low an estimate.

My personal observations of real change at the supermarket or mall suggest that most of those products will either last only for a short time, or fail outright. In other words, coming up with a new product that becomes a long-term "required" purchase - something people buy regularly and habitually - is extremely difficult.

If you have been the primary buyer of your household's groceries for more than a decade, go through your pantry and refrigerator and try to determine how many products you buy at least once a month now that didn't exist five or ten years ago. There will be a few; I'd be surprised if there were a lot.

Assuming the odds are as dismal as I think they are - and, again, statistics are very hard to come by here - how can it possibly be worth the cash for companies to introduce so many products, to take these large risks over and over, every year?

Corporations, particularly publicly-held ones, have this bizarre idea that they must always continue to grow, that each year must represent an expansion upon the year before. The stock market has rewarded and reinforced this strange idea, so despite the fact that it is clearly impossible for all companies, or even most companies, to grow indefinitely, it looks like we're stuck with it.

So that's Premise #1, which I ask you to accept for now: Companies must always grow.

Premise #2 is a pretty big oversimplification, and I am no market theorist, but basically, the idea is that your supermarket is a zero-sum game, or close to it. You are already buying your preferred brand of soda (or not buying soda at all, but that's the part that we're simplifying out). You are already buying the brand of detergent you use. You are not likely to suddenly start using two brands of detergent at once, and in general there is not going to be much change in the way you do laundry. You usually buy a particular brand of bread, a particular brand of soup, et cetera. So, for a company to increase sales of their brand, they will have to steal sales from someone else's brand. If you start using their soap you stop using someone else's.

(This is further complicated by the fact that, increasingly, you don't have a lot of brand loyalty, but you do have a lot of inertia. In other words, you're not usually going to make the effort and risk of switching products as long as you've found one which is adequate, but you don't particularly care which product it is. You don't care whether it's Duz or Lux so long as it cleans your clothes and meets whatever your other personal standards may be. This has got to make manufacturers a little crazy.)

What these premises, combined, mean is that increasingly, new products have to make their space by reaching a group that the existing products did not. Pitching an existing product as "new and improved" is not enough anymore, not usually; it has to be something slightly different, something which appeals to a slightly different group.

Put another way: The people who are interested in Coca-Cola are already routinely buying it; the tendency is therefore for Coca-Cola sales to reach a peak and then (pardon the phrase) go flat. It is very difficult to sell Coca-Cola to a group of people who already have established they're not very interested in the basic idea of the product. However, they may very well be interested in a sugar-free version of the product, or one which has a better ecological backstory, or isn't made in a country they don't like, or appears to be better for them, or even one which has a different color package. (You only think I'm kidding. It's well-established that often consumers are buying the package more than the product.)

This is where the overabundance of new products come from.

Have you seen what's happening to the Hershey bar lately? I have two ads here, very different, but both feature Hershey's chocolate which is a far cry from the bland, thin, chalky, barely adequate bar of slightly sour chocolate from your childhood.

One of them has these three new varieties, which is apparently now their "Hershey's Goodness" line, but may have at one point been their "Wellness" line:

All Natural Extra Dark. It's a 60% bar, which is not "extra dark," but is in Hershey's terms - their old standby Special Dark bar is about 45% cocoa solids - Hershey probably feels, with some justification, that above 60% is too bitter for a bar to be popular as an eating chocolate. Apparently some varieties of this bar come with various fruits and nuts in it which are supposed to have antioxidant properties.

Antioxidant Milk Chocolate. I can't quite tell but I think this one may have had extra antioxidants added to it. So you won't rust.

Whole Bean Chocolate. To my mind bragging about a chocolate being made from whole beans is like saying one of your fruit pies is made with real fruit - it leads me to wonder what goes into your other stuff. This one is apparently enriched with other goodies as well, like dietary fiber.

Need I explain who the audience is for this lot? That's right: People who want to eat chocolate and yet kid themselves they are eating something healthy. I will refrain from speculating on the psychology of such people, as you might be one and I would hate to insult you. I will simply say that if you feel guilty about eating chocolate, my approach would be to make my other meals healthier so that I could then have chocolate for dessert without remorse.

The other Hershey ad has a rather different appeal. The products in the Cacao Reserve line are designed for chocolate snobs. No, not price snobs - they don't buy Hershey's and never will. I'm talking about the people who are the chocolate equivalent of the guy who tells you for thirty minutes how he only buys coffee beans which are picked on the shady side of a particular hill in Guatemala, but only on nights when the moon is dark, and how he is careful to grind them no more than thirty seconds before brewing and only uses water that has been heated to exactly 132.375 degrees.

It's true that chocolate does have a number of varietal quirks and so on, although it is a far more manufactured product than coffee. I'm perfectly willing to believe that it's possible to taste the difference between a bar made from Sao Tomé beans and one from Santo Domingo. But the people who care about this are not buying Hershey's. The people who care about this are not even looking down their noses at Hershey's. Hershey's is not on their radar.

The nice people at the Hershey Company would desperately like to be, though. I've always gotten the impression that Hershey's has a little bit of an inferiority complex about the way some of us Americans, and all Europeans, feel about their lousy chocolate. To an extent, this product line feels to me like Hershey shouting, "Look, we can too make real chocolate!" I'd like to hope it's too little, too late.

No, I don't like Hershey much, can you tell? I believe they are largely responsible for training several generations of Americans to actually prefer lousy chocolate, which wouldn't be a problem - hey, you want to have bad food, that's your business - except that it has traditionally made it more difficult and more expensive for those of us who prefer better chocolate to get our hands on the good stuff.

I also don't see Hershey trying to do anything about fair trade - cocoa beans are a crop where there has traditionally been a lot of exploitation of labor at the source. Perhaps when Hershey wants to go after the socially-conscious consumer, the one buying Green and Black at the local Whole Foods, that will change. But it will still be too little, too late, to my mind.

You may think it far-fetched that Hershey would one day go after the liberal-guilt folks, but you might be surprised. One reason is that this sort of social consciousness is spreading, slowly. It's still a niche market and always will be, because the average American doesn't actually give a damn what's happening in the environment or to cocoa workers in the Ivory Coast, except during his one scheduled bout of remorse a year. But it's now a big enough market to pander to, especially when it coincides with a desire for "healthier" or "more natural" products (without requiring more than a vague specification of what that might mean).

Crest (Procter & Gamble), for example, has recently been pushing hard on their "Nature's Expressions" line of toothpastes. These have "Natural Peppermint Oil," "Natural Mint and Lemon Extracts," and "Green Tea Extract" - which is all good and well and may steal them some business from the Tom's of Maine types ... except I'm willing to bet these toothpastes, no matter that they are using natural instead of artificial peppermint flavoring, still have the hidden sin of almost all toothpastes - tons of sweetener. If Crest actually has gone all the way and made their toothpaste as relatively unsweetened as Tom's, I will applaud their bravery. The American consumer has long since developed an expectation that they will be brushing their teeth with sugar sand in the morning; it takes a lot to buck that.

But I don't expect to be surprised. Anyway, the point is, this is a line extension aimed squarely at a particular market that Crest has never before tried to reach. It's only an acceptable risk because it's no longer just the zealots and hippies that will be reached by this approach - we've all gotten to the point where you can toss "natural" on and throw in a little green tea and you'll get a few more in the guilt crowd.

In short, the guilt crowd is bigger than it used to be. Once upon a time, not long ago, "organic" products were strictly for the granola-eaters. Now we're all granola-eaters (although most granola is more like candy bars now) and Heinz has an "organic" version of their ketchup, which I was served at least twice as the stock model in restaurants over the past several weeks.

That's the sort of thing that makes new-product development units sit up and salivate.

So. We've discussed trying to step your product out of its usual economic or cultural bracket; we've discussed trying to move it into groups of people with different values or different tastes from your normal consumer group. That really only leaves one major Attempted Market Shift to consider, and that's age.

I have here an ad for JELL-O Fruit Passions. These are JELL-O cups, the standard lunchbox model, except that each one has "a full serving of fruit". Now, given where this ad appeared, it could have been targeted at Mom to purchase to put in those lunchboxes, with the pitch as, "see, this is actually a healthy thing to feed your kids, it's got fruit" - the guilt angle again. And there may well be some collateral business to be done in that direction. But no product with the name "Passions" in it (especially not in the font they used - trust me on this) could possibly be aimed primarily at kids. Kids don't have passions. Kids have joys.

JELL-O has done relatively well at crossing the border. An adult that wouldn't dare be seen putting a pudding cup into their lunch will often eat a cup of JELL-O in front of co-workers without fear. But clearly there is room for improvement, in the eyes of Kraft Foods.

Maybe they're just looking for a relatively stable backup market, since one of the problems with a kid's product is that kids bore easily. I also have a JELL-O ad for three new "exciting blends of fruit flavors" - Tropical Fusion, Melon Fusion, and Blackberry Fusion - which strike me as an attempt to hold the attention of the somewhat older kidlets past the usual Age of JELL-O Threshold (and to convince Mom that she'll be able to sell them on it). We also have JELL-O pudding mixes which are "now with chips in the mix" - same principle, but scarier-looking. Pudding mix is on a long slow decline in this country as its own foodstuff (as opposed to as an ingredient), and I'm not sure gelatin mix is doing so well either. There may be the stench of desperation in the air.

Eventually, of course, almost all products do fail - if you make "eventually" long enough.

There are plenty of products which were perfectly good, with huge customer bases, that are gone or on life support simply because the fashion has changed and the consumers have evolved. I live in New England, where legacy products seem to be kept around for much longer than they would be anywhere else. I can still buy Uneeda Biscuits and common crackers and coal-tar soap and so forth if I go to the right places. There was nothing wrong with any of these products; people just moved on.

I don't say this evolution is a bad thing, either. It brought us some of the products that are most useful and interesting today, the ones where we say "How'd we ever do without that?" But one sometimes feels, now, as if we are permanently on fast-forward - an accelerated and extremely haphazard evolution, where products are born and mutate and multiply and grow old and die in the matter of weeks, and it is no longer a foregone conclusion that the ones which survive will be the fittest.

and now back to our program

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