Rivals, sugar industry take aim at Splenda

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In four short years, Splenda has gobbled up more than half the sugar-substitute category, and competitors want sweet revenge.

Rivals are fighting back against the upstart's marketing campaign that it's "made from sugar so it tastes like sugar" in the courts and the court of public opinion. One legal battle is being waged by Merisant, marketer of Equal. It filed suit in November in a Pennsylvania district court against Splenda marketer Johnson & Johnson's McNeil Nutritionals after what it called failed attempts to have the National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureau review the campaign.

At least nine suits in seven states have been filed on behalf of consumers, including some class actions that allege the advertising leads consumers to believe the product is natural.

But it's the $10 billion Sugar Association that's the most bitter. In December it filed suit in California district court against McNeil. It's set up a Web site, truthaboutsplenda.com, that raises questions about the safety of sucralose, the brand's chemical name. It's fired off a letter to the Federal Trade Commission asking it to open an investigation. And it's pouring on more pressure this week, linking with the Center for Science in the Public Interest and agricultural organization the National Grange to mount a PR push against Splenda.

"They're trying to suggest an identity between sugar and Splenda rather than what it really is; a natural product on one hand and an artificial sweetener on the other," said Andy Briscoe, president-CEO of The Sugar Association.

Counterclaim

In response, last week McNeil filed a counterclaim against The Sugar Association and its public relations firm, Qorvis Communications, which created the truthaboutsplenda Web site, for making false statements about Splenda "designed to injure its reputation and goodwill."

"We're not claiming that Splenda is natural," said a McNeil Nutritionals spokeswoman. "Our research shows that consumers understand that we are a no- calorie sweetener."

beyond the tabletop

Much is at stake. Dollar sales of white granulated sugar fell 5% to $818.6 million in food, drug and mass merchandisers excluding Wal-Mart for the year ended Jan. 23, according to Information Resources Inc. Splenda, with more than $175 million in sales during that same time period, captured nearly three times more sales than Equal or No. 3 Cumberland Packing Co.'s Sweet `N Low.

But Splenda's momentum goes way beyond the tabletop. Both PepsiCo and Coca-Cola Co. are preparing their own versions of Splenda-sweetened drinks. Coca-Cola Co. is preparing Diet Coke with Splenda, and PepsiCo in early March will launch a reformulated PepsiOne, replacing its existing sweeteners with Splenda-a move it hopes will create a rebirth for the one-calorie drink. Cadbury Schweppes Americas Beverages is preparing an ad and coupon effort targeting pregnant women for its Splenda-sweetened 7UP Plus brand.

The Sugar Association is hoping to boost sales with a May ad campaign positioning sugar as all natural with just 15 calories per teaspoon-a fraction of what consumers perceive-and, when consumed in moderation, part of a healthy lifestyle. Columbia, Md.-based Marriner Marketing is handling the effort to include TV, radio and print with a budget of $3 million to $5 million per year for the next three years.

That's a pittance of the more than $30 million McNeil spent from January through October 2004 with ads that said "Think sugar, say Splenda" via Interpublic Group of Cos.' Alchemy, New York. That effort has been steered by Debra Sandler, worldwide group VP-marketing for McNeil, honored in 2003 as one of Advertising Age's Marketing 50 for Splenda's "made from sugar" marketing strategy.

contributing: ira teinowitz

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