PLAY-IT-SAFE PRODUCTS

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Every day, supermarket shop pers find themselves stand ing in the cereal aisle, deciding whether to buy regular Rice Krispies or new Rice Krispies Treats; or in the cookie aisle, choosing a familiar Chips Ahoy! or the latest, Chunky Chips Ahoy!.

Making product move off the shelves is a game played against a clock that's as unyielding as pro basketball's 24-second shot clock. "It's get 'em out fast, and don't spend a lot of money. It's a prescription for close and easy-to-do launches," said David Olson, head of new-product planning at Leo Burnett Co. in our "Brands in Demand" Special Report last week.

The report noted that, if one subtracts new flavors, sizes and varieties, we find "fewer meaningful new products being introduced ... and even fewer successful new brand names." That's due to a new-product world in which risk-taking is now the exception. What permeates the business is a quarter-by-quarter orientation. When a ceo is going to stick around for only five years or so, it's hard to commit to product development programs that can take up most of that time.

But purveyors of the quick-and-easy approach miss the obvious, that U.S. consumers will recognize innovation and excellence. New brands like Banana Nut Crunch cereal and Zima ClearMalt beverage will make their sales mark. In other words, the right product coming out of r&d with a solid marketing plan and with the proper level of promotional support can turn trial users into loyal customers. And achieving loyalty in the grocery aisle is what every package-goods marketer should be aiming for.

The quick fix is unforgivable in an industry that owes so much of its post-World War II growth to new products. Time and again, the megamergers of the '80s have seen brand equity become diluted through an unending procession of easy flankers and line extensions.

But it's not too late for marketers to get back to basics and begin putting more effort and money into r&d. If they fail to return to this approach, they will have no one but themselves to blame as more of their brands become insignificant players and private-label products bump them off the shelves, if not out of the store.

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