With the launch this spring of Shedd's Country Crock Spreadable Butter with Canola Oil, Unilever is forsaking its leading margarine's heritage in the interest of higher margins. Its new product, if successful, will command roughly twice the price of its other spreads. But will consumers be willing to believe in butter from a brand that was for years a butter-basher?
One Midwest retail executive thinks not. "I have a hard time seeing the carryover to butter," said a Minneapolis-area wholesale grocery buyer, noting that store managers themselves are confused over the new items, whose packaging looks the same as the typical Shedd's spread but carries much higher prices.
Another area retail executive suggested that butter is a tough category because of its commodity nature -- private-label brands dominate by a wide margin -- but that "it all comes down to marketing." And for that, responsibility lies with Keith Bobier, senior marketing director, Country Crock, who will direct the $20 million advertising campaign featuring its famous talking hands to help consumers over the hurdle. Stone & Simons, Southfield, Mich., handles.
An outlay of $23 million last year toward another out-there extension of Country Crock -- a leap into the refrigerated side dishes business begun in late 2004 -- has served Unilever well. The brand of ready-to-heat items shelved in the meat section, such as mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese made with Country Crock, garnered $76 million in sales last year.
Certainly, though, consumers won't buy just anything under the Country Crock name. A test of Shedd's Country Crock Whipped Peanut Butter begun in June of 2003 was discontinued in April of last year after consumers failed to cotton to it.
Steven Addis, president of packaging and identity firm Addis Group, said spreadable butter is likely an appropriate extension because "it all comes down to what they [Country Crock] stand for, which is more than a specific product but more of an emotional positioning around being a healthy alternative." Unilever's challenge then, he said, is to move beyond general butter as a comparison and focus on a new comparison with pure butter, since Unilever's is a more healthful buttermilk/canola oil blend.
As controversy arises over whether or not margarines are actually healthier (Unilever is currently in the process of reducing its own margarine's artery-clogging trans-fats), consumers are expected to turn increasingly to butter, observers suggest.
Country Crock is tied with Unilever sibling I Can't Believe It's Not Butter for leading status in the declining $1.2 billion margarine category with $246 million in sales for the 52 weeks ended Jan. 6 in food, drug and mass outlets excluding Wal-Mart, according to Information Resources Inc. While the $1.2 billion butter category is down nearly as much as margarine, the margins for the category are far higher and brand leader Land O' Lakes, despite a sales dip of 6%, still saw totals of $361 million for the same time period.
Unilever last year spent $13 million on its Shedd's Country Crock spreads, including line extensions such as yogurt-based and calcium-added varieties, in addition to the $23 million it put against the new Country Crock Sides, TNS Media Intelligence/CMR reported.