Thursday, August 13, 2009

Twenty Five Kinds of Super Glue

I kid you not.

In a recent Wall Street Journal report detailing changes on supermarket and pharmacy shelves, it announced that Walgreens would be reducing the number of superglue varieties it carries -- from 11 to 25. Doesn't 11 still seem excessive? Isn't the whole point of super glue that you can use it for a whole range of surfaces? Can you even imagine eleven different situations in which you might need a special type or even a certain brand of super strength glue? I'm pretty creative, but I stopped after about seven.

In the past, I've talked about brand extension as a mixed approach to retail, especially when it comes to food. We've about exhausted the rationale for new kinds of Oreo cookies when we hit 12, didn't we? (For goodness sake, if you're going all out for a holiday, why not just get some heart shaped cookies on Valentine's Day? If you need Oreos, get Oreos! They don't have to have red cream).

But the economy has retail manufacturers discovering what consumers have known all along: there are just too many tiny variations on the same thing to make choices. According to the WSJ report, Target Chief Executive Gregg Steinhafel says even he is baffled by Target's array of shampoo choices:
"I have found myself standing in front of the Pantene display, trying to figure out if I need the product for dry hair with frizz or dry hair with split ends," said Mr. Steinhafel, a thick-haired 54-year-old. A typical Target store has 88 kinds of Pantene shampoo, conditioner and styling products. A Target spokeswoman said the chain has "slightly reduced" its hair-care offerings this year.
Even eight or nine years ago, consumer research was showing that people are overwhelmed by the choices. As Sheena Iyengar reported:
The more-is-better approach can backfire, warns Mark Lepper, the chairman of Stanford University's psychology department, who studies how variety affects the odds that people actually buy. Mr. Lepper set up a table with 30 jars of jam and gave shoppers who stopped for a sample a discount coupon for their next jam purchase. He also had a table with six jams. He counted the coupons to see which group was more likely to buy. Of the shoppers who faced 30 choices, only 3% actually bought jam; of the shoppers who had six choices, 30% purchased jam.
The study, like many others, concludes that too much choice was not a good thing. People also feel bad when choosing from a broad selection because they second-guess their pick and worry they have made a poor selection, his follow-up studies revealed.

I'm still stuck on the eighty eight kinds of Pantene shampoo. Seriously, I normally try to curb my consumer rant voice when I'm exploring the rationale behind retail, but that's just mind-bogglingly ridiculous. There simply aren't eighty eight different kinds of hair problems that warrant their own product. Indeed, P&G has pulled back, repackaged, and cut some of the varieties in order to address less-than-desired sales.

But let's review simple science: the more you add, the more the original gets diluted. The more it's diluted, the less it resembles the original item.

Here's the social scientific conclusion: The less it resembles the original, the less people will feel any loyalty to the product as a unique and significant item in their must-have pile. And let's face it, what brands are competing for right now is a slot in the shrinking must-have pile in the grocery cart.

What's missing from the brand retraction (can we call it that?) that's going on due to economic retrenchment is a consumer-based logic. Sure, maybe there's a core group of consumers who use one or two of those varieties of Pantene on a regular basis -- and they'll be at a loss when they show up at Target looking for the usual stuff. What retailers and manufacturers are loath to do -- and in fact, have never been particularly good at -- is giving consumers the head's up about the loss of a product. At the very least, offer them something new (coupons for one of the surviving comparable types of shampoo, let's say...) that isn't yet another "special for frizzy hair, will glue plexiglass. and has a cartoon character stamped on the outside cookie" invention.

image credits: Germes and Dominic Bracco II (WSJ online).

Monday, August 10, 2009

Of Mints and Markers: Curiously Strong and Sharp

Some products are things we never knew we needed. Smart marketing takes advantage of the unique ways that people value everyday items.

Before they became ubiquitous, Altoids were just a novelty product, something hipsters and old men handed out to their cronies. But then something happened and they became a must-have, commonly recognized brand. In 1995, when Kraft foods acquired the product, it had been around for, well, centuries, notable both for the concentration of peppermint oil and, starting in the 1920s, the clever tin in which they were housed. Their new campaign was rather tongue-in-cheek and campy with vague sexual references. The most famous was the turn-of-the-century carnival worker featured with the caption "Nice Altoids."

This ad ran for what felt like an eternity in contemporary marketing terms, but it also gave the mints a notoriety among a certain segment of the population. Nowadays, everyone knows the Curiously Strong Peppermint, its variations (chocolate covered ginger, so far from the original, but still so good), and of course, the tin. Altoids can now be found in many flavors as well as gum and sours and claim to be the number one mint in the USA, which has prompted the corporate owners to move manufacturing from Europe to Tennessee.

Another product that suddenly appears necessary to everyone's daily life is the Sharpie. Twenty years ago, permanent markers were the kind of thing moms used to label kid's clothes before sending them off to camp or office workers kept around to make sure their lunch leftovers in the company refrigerator didn't get eaten by someone else. Black and red were standard -- green was for unusual circumstances. Graffiti artists have always loved Sharpie (In college towns, local coffee shops even began leaving Sharpies in the restrooms, encouraging poetry on the walls and using the big fat black version to "erase" anything too raucous). Nowadays, the brand name Sharpie has replaced the less colorful "permanent marker" (like calling a tissue a Kleenex, the item and the brand have unconsciously collided.) The parent company, seeing a perfect opportunity, is coloring the world. Indeed, Sharpies have become an art necessity: here in Pittsburgh, the most local venerable shoe store staged a promotional event, where local tattoo artists would grace any newly purchased pair of Ugg boots for free.

Building on this kind of unusual usage, Sharpie has smartly linked its new website, sharpieuncapped, to a whole host of online communities, DIY enthusiasts, kids, and artists who generate endless innovative ways to use sharpies. There's even a David Beckham promotion, some amazing surf boards, and a nice YouTube video showing exactly how to transfer a design to a t-shirt. And for the really ambitious, there's always the opportunity to emulate artist Tim Bernard, whose Sharpie murals translate well into car designs.

Referencing their most recent summer campaign, Sally Grimes, global vice president of marketing for Sharpie, told Marketing Daily: " We're starting now because we think Sharpie is about much more than a school supply. It's a tool for self-expression not necessarily tied to any particular season."

It's one thing for a product to work its way into people's list of necessities and it's another for companies to capitalize on that successfully. For mints and markers, you can't do better than these.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Credible Claims and Big Savings

Credibility always counts in marketing, but even more these days when consumers are questioning the trustworthiness of their banks, the safety of their food, and the value of the products they are purchasing as funds have tightened up. Interestingly, polls now show that the same people concerned about safety issues in the food system are also exhibiting greater trust in small or local banks. Retail marketing campaigns that aim to capture the frugal consumer are extremely vulnerable to skepticism in the age of internet activism, advice, and response. Setting aside their big blunder with free chicken, Oprah, and coupons, KFC got into some hot water with consumers when a recent ad challenged a family to create a meal from the grocery store for as little as it cost for one of their seven piece dinners (roughly $10). Tons of bloggers and ordinary folks took the challenge and, armed with Joy of Cooking, common sense, and price spreadsheets, "brought the colonel down."

Now, Wal-Mart is faced with a similar challenge. Their new ads are slicker, minus the smarmy happy face, but full of satisfied families getting just what they need (or don't) for low low prices. Recently, Media Post reported that the National Advertising Division (NAD) of the Better Business Bureau is after WalMart because of its claim that it can save customers $700 a year. Wal-Mart contends that its math is good and small disclaimers at the bottom of the ad make it clear that variations are possible. However, the claim is misleading:
While acknowledging that all price-matching programs have terms and limitations that may not reasonably be expected to be disclosed in a TV spot, the NAD recommended that Wal-Mart "make its disclosures substantially more clear and conspicuous in its printed and broadcast advertising and on its in-store signage." It also recommended that it ditch the "$700 annual savings" claim entirely. "The use of the phrase "on average" does not temper the overriding message that the viewer -- wherever located -- can expect to obtain these savings," the watchdog group says in its release.
According to Retailing Today, the NAD also complains that Walmart's cost comparison study (done by Global Insight) looks at a national average rather than considering the competitive landscape of grocers throughout the nation. Indeed, Global Insight's study was designed to look at the impact of WalMart's low prices on the overall economy, but it does make the claim that customers can expect such savings no matter what geographic area they live in.

More importantly, the press generated by the BBB's complaint and WalMart's defiant attitude are more likely to be what consumers hear about rather than the methodology behind Global Insight's research. Being a behemoth, it's not likely that WalMart will take a huge hit from this gaffe, but it doesn't help their larger credibility. We've reached a point, as a culture, where defensiveness is not a successful long term strategy for gaining loyalty.