The move is surprising, not only because Snickers contains peanuts, making a light version difficult to engineer, but also because the base brand is aimed at young males, who tend to reject low-fat, low-calorie candy.
The timing is also unusual because many light snacks, such as Nabisco Biscuit Co.'s SnackWell's line, haven't been doing well of late and marketers are moving to add fat to some products. Nabisco last week said it would be upping the fat content of its ailing Snack-M&M/Mars
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Well's cookies and adding more indulgent products beginning in June.
Nabisco will put about $50 million in advertising behind the relaunch starting this summer, through Foote, Cone & Belding, New York. Ads won't mention the increased fat content and instead will push a new taste.
M&M/Mars' previous push into the segment with Milky Way Lite had a promising start but is turning out to be a flop.
But one executive familiar with the candy marketer's plan said the company has little to lose with a light version of Snickers.
"Why not?" the executive asked. "There's still an opportunity" to expand the franchise beyond its core male users.
The trick, this executive said, will be to create a brand true to Snickers' taste without alienating users of the flagship product: "You have to achieve the balance. If you have Diet Coke, what do you need Coke for?"
A Mars spokeswoman said she was "not aware we have anything to announce" about a light Snickers bar. Snickers agency BBDO Worldwide, New York, has the assignment for the new line extension. The agency referred calls to Mars.
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Mars has been relatively quiet on the ad front for Snickers recently after investing $45 million in measured media on the brand last year. The support was for its testosterone-laden "Hungry? Why wait?" campaign. The company's recent focus has been on ads for M&M's, particularly for its millennium promotion.
It couldn't be determined where Mars might test the new brand, what kind of ad support would back the test or how much would be spent on a national launch. The company routinely spends upwards of $20 million on product introductions.
Last year, Mars spent $8.1 million on Milky Way Lite, according to Competitive Media Reporting. It's now running print timed to summer diet season showing a candy bar being pulled apart under the headline, "It may be early in the season, but we wanted to be the first to expose our midsection."
D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, St. Louis, handles Milky Way and Milky Way Lite.
Information Resources Inc. put sales of Milky Way Lite in food, drug and mass merchandisers at $9.8 million for the 52 weeks ended March 1, down 39.2% from the same period last year. That's a far cry from its introduction in 1996, when the company claimed the brand was on its way to $100 million in sales.
Snickers saw sales grow less than 1%, to $61.8 million, according to IRI, well behind M&M's 20% growth to $118.4 million.