BRAND BATTLE BETWEEN NUTRASWEET, SPLENDA STARTS ON THE TABLETOP: MONSANTO PLANS ADS TO HELP FEND OFF MCNEIL INTRO

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The first marketing battle between sugar substitute king NutraSweet and newcomer Splenda will be fought on the tabletop.

Category leader Monsanto Co. is preparing a TV and print ad campaign for a new tabletop sweetener that for the first time will bear the NutraSweet name -- previously reserved for the ingredient.

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The campaign, from Y&R Advertising, Chicago, comes as Monsanto evaluates reviving a branding campaign from Ogilvy & Mather, Chicago, for the ingredient and awaits government approval of neotame, nicknamed "Sweetener 2000."

Monsanto spent $9.7 million in measured media to support its Equal line -- Equal, Equal Spoonful and Equal Measure -- in 1997, according to Competitive Media Reporting.

Johnson & Johnson's McNeil Specialty Products Co. won't discuss marketing plans for sucralose, branded Splenda, which this month received Food & Drug Administration approval after 11 years.

Internationally, McNeil has co-marketed the brand with food and beverage products that use Splenda as an ingredient, while also advertising a Splenda-branded tabletop sweetener via Ammirati Puris Lintas. Ammirati's New York office will handle the brand in the U.S.

`SOMETHING TANGIBLE'

"Tabletop has helped build the ingredient brand name as well," said Leslie Steiner, director of international marketing for McNeil. "It's hard for consumers to visualize a product that is an ingredient. Having the Splenda tabletop product gives them something tangible to help them understand what they are eating and drinking in other products."

The same philosophy spurred Monsanto to bring out a NutraSweet-branded line.

"The tabletop brand can carry the brand message," said Jim Mitchel, director of marketing, who said creative is still in development.

According to Information Resources Inc., in 1997 the tabletop category totaled $263 million in sales, down 6.8% over the year earlier. Competitors include Cumberland Packing Co.'s Sweet 'N Low, Alberto-Culver Co.'s Sugar Twin and Crystal Foodservice's Sweet Thing, in addition to Monsanto's Equal line.

McNeil's Splenda has been available in 27 countries. In Canada, Australia and the Middle East, Splenda has been supported by TV, print, radio and outdoor boards. TV hasn't been part of the mix in Latin America.

Creative approaches have varied, but the brand most often appears to be positioned as a low-calorie alternative to sugar.

Ms. Steiner wouldn't say what approach will be taken in the U.S.

"I think it's very important that we establish ourselves as a low-calorie sweetener . . . but the best way isn't always branding," she said.

BIG BOOST TO `DIET'

What will give Splenda a boost is the marketing around brands using the new sweetener, which food and beverage industry players expect will give a big boost to the slowing "diet" category.

"Splenda will spark a revolution in diet drinks and bakery goods," predicted Tom Pirko, a consultant at Bevmark. "You're going to see a lot of advertising from soft-drink companies saying, `New and improved.' "

Indeed, Diet RC Cola packaging is currently being changed to include a starburst on the label with the word "new" and a line reading, "Now sweetened with Splenda," said Jeff Spencer, senior VP-marketing for RC brands at parent Triarc Beverage Group. Diet RC was previously sweetened with aspartame.

Mr. Spencer said it's too early to say what kind of broadcast support will back the reformulated Diet RC Cola. The soft drink's advertising is handled by Blum/Herbstreith, New York.

"The key to marketing this is we believe we are offering an alternative to products with aspartame," said Michael Weinstein, CEO of Triarc. "We think this gives us an opportunity to sign up new bottlers [and] gain distribution. . . . We are in a very low-risk position."

The other beverage marketer already onboard for Splenda is Veryfine Products, which will launch a five-flavor line of diet fruit juices with the sweetener later this month.

In baked goods, "It's one of the greatest breakthroughs in years," said Randy Golden, VP-corporate brands for Nasser Co., a food brokerage company.

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