Monday, February 15, 2010

Reader Request: Old Marketing Magazine Column

I received a DM from @sillpillow wondering if I could re-post the following article. Here it is.

The incredible moreness of everything
When too much product novelty damages product credibility
Marketing Magazine | September 23, 2002 | Ryan Bigge

With the thirsty days of summer now over, it's time to assess the latest cola war skirmish. According to a survey, Vanilla Coke is doing slightly better than Pepsi Blue. One anonymous wag asked, "...can anyone tell me the appeal of a beverage that looks like Windex?" Ouch. The victor isn't doing much better: "It was quite delicious as the vanilla removes the battery-acid flavour regular Coke has."

This battle is ultimately meaningless, but the trend it illustrates isn't. In a Harper's essay published in April titled "The Numbing of the American Mind," Thomas de Zengotita wrote about the side effects of too much of a good thing. "The moreness of everything ascends inevitably to a threshold in psychic life. A change of state takes place," he argues. "The discrete display melts into a pudding, and the mind is forced to certain adaptations if it is to cohere at all."

We have developed a psychological immunity to excess stimuli, argues Zengotita, and thus we surf from moment to moment, product to product, without pause or reflection. We have to–supermarkets have twice as many SKUs (stock-keeping units) as 1985. The number of produce items has gone from 65 in 1975 to over 250. Magazine shelves groan with niche titles. Et cetera, etc.

But is this orgy of consumer fetishism actually satisfying? Yes and no. Back in 1975, Steve Sanger (now CEO of General Mills) was in charge of Lucky Charms cereal. He introduced a blue diamond-shaped marshmallow. Sales increased noticeably. The same trick worked again in 1984, with purple horseshoes. He later did likewise with Cheerios, introducing apple cinnamon and honey nut options.

Why did the death of cereal monogamy work so well? The answer might be found in the Coolidge Effect, which refers to a reduction in the sexual refractory period of the male when a new mating partner is introduced. According to an apocryphal story, President Calvin Coolidge was visiting an egg farm with his wife, Grace, in the 1920s. Taken on separate tours, Grace learned that roosters procreate dozens of times daily. "Please tell that to the President," she said to her guide. When the President received his wife's message he asked, "Same hen every time?" The answer was no. "Please tell that to Mrs. Coolidge," he replied.

The Coolidge Effect can be quite powerful. Male rats will copulate to the point of exhaustion (sometimes even death) if supplied with enough new female rats. But the consumer equivalent of the Coolidge effect most commonly results in what author Douglas Coupland calls Option Paralysis: "The tendency, when given unlimited choices, to make none."

Even selecting ketchup–until recently a fusty but reliable condiment–is now as numbing a decision as toothpaste selection. Heinz now offers Roasted Garlic, Hot & Spicy and Sweet Basil & Oregano flavoured ketchup, plus an organic version. That's in addition to "Blastin' Green" and "Funky Purple" coloured Ketchup in an E-Zee Squirt bottle. Once the only choice regarding ketchup was family or regular size. Soon, there will be 57 Keinz of ketchup, including tartar control, fluoride and mint varieties.

Buried within the seemingly innocuous ketchup experimentation is the more damaging trend of blurring product definitions. There is already a red-coloured sauce that is Hot & Spicy and made by Heinz. It's called BBQ sauce.

Heinz isn't messing around with something as arcane as sub-brands, flanker brands or sidekick brands. Rather, it is trying to turn a food staple into an impulse item. Potato chips? Sure. Candy bars? Of course. Perhaps even salad dressing can fit within the umbrella of impulse. But after 126 years of loyal service, ketchup is as much a staple as flour or sugar. In attempting to make ketchup into something it is not, Heinz risks brand stability and customer loyalty.

Sometimes shoppers like things that are plain and puritan. Not every product has to tart itself up to encourage a tryst with our cupboards. Customer loyalty can often be maintained through product stability. It's the difference between the comforts of marriage versus the fleeting pleasure of one-night stands.

My solution, however, is to encourage, not discourage, product propagation. For once, I plan to profit from increased confusion by opening a supermarket called Sputnik. In my Cold War, Soviet-style shopping environment, I will offer only one brand of each item. Of course, it was the lack of consumer durables and sundries that contributed to the collapse of Communism. But it turns out that the free market isn't problem-free either.