Think outside the low-carb box

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Food marketers' latest, and distinctly un-enterprising, recipe for success is blitzing the consumer with low-carb everything. In many cases the products at the end of the research and production lines are borderline unpalatable, and they certainly won't become consumer favorites anytime soon. But we shouldn't be surprised because this is a classic symptom of the fact the ingredient in shortest supply right now is marketers' courage.

Innovation has been sucked out of the corporate culture. Corporate giants let others take the risk, wait for proven success by an independent brand or what they see as a surefire trend, and then swoop in for the acquisition. Companies lament that it's just too expensive to establish a new brand. Then they pay huge premiums for already established, successful brands, justified by the notion that the efficiencies will more than make up for the multiple. Often, however, the brand is then mainstreamed to death because the intrepid marketers inside the corporate parent company didn't understand the intangible, emotive connection between the consumers and the brand that the company bought.

The currency in such short supply is not cash. Corporations have the money, but the courage coffers are empty. Jobs are tight and marketers feel they're more likely to get fired for failing than failing to try.

detachment

It takes courage to authentically empathize with consumers. Ivory towers detach managers from consumers. They are lulled into the comfortable conclusion that their typical research methods genuinely predict the irrational actions of a consumer's heart. The most telling symptom of that detachment is the lemming-like adherence to trends that wash over entire industries.

Right now a large percentage of every R&D dollar in the packaged-foods business is going into low-carb products. Putting aside short memories of the last single-benefit salvo-remember the fat-free bubble?-the trend shows little consumer empathy. Food marketers are pouring products onto the market that take an undifferentiated medicinal approach. Applications for over 1,000 trademarks have been filed with every combination of the word "carb" in the hopes that there's a turn of phrase that will capture the imagination and rise above the fray. The brands are positioned around solely nutritional benefits with all the appeal of hospital food.

Brands that do become ones that last go far beyond rational points-of-parity. People love brands on an emotional level. When consumers have trouble articulating reasons they love a brand, I can think of no higher praise. But it takes courage to build a brand that has real personality. Ben & Jerry's, Odwalla, Kashi and Newman's Own are a few that have.

There's no reason why wit, personality and great design must be absent from a brand that also happens to be well-balanced nutritionally. And, I say "well balanced" versus "low carb" because the simplistic carb-only bubble will give way to a new, multidimensional approach. Both decadent and nutritious brands will co-exist but none will last long without a deeper connection. This is especially true for snacks, a category in which fun trumps functional.

But even the best consumer research won't be turned into insights that yield great products unless the organization sheds its filters and biases. Like plaque, habits of mind-set build over time, masking the ability to really see the consumer. Ideas get diluted. CEOs wish managers would innovate more. Managers wish CEOs would allow ideas to see the light of day. The cycle is so self-perpetuating that companies are paralyzed.

breaking the cycle

Top management must break this cycle by moving away from simply following the herd and by celebrating attempts to do something different. It's easy to tell people that they should try, but a sustained and authentic culture of innovation will take a "from this day forward" attitude. Devise an event to kick-off a new mind-set that is fully formed with true recognition (including incentive compensation) for innovation. Marketers' biggest threat comes from within. To succeed they need to think and act like startups.

People don't shop by sitting in a gray room talking about brands. True empathy is not simply finding out what consumers say they want and then offering it. Get out in the world and watch, listen and learn from real actions. Consumers can't tell you what the next breakthrough will be, but their actions might.

Too many companies regard branding as "the posters and advertising that marketing folks create." Instead they need to consider that everything is branding and everyone controls it. If "brand" is how people think of your product, then everything you say or do affects that perception and is "branding." More than ever, consumers share ownership of the brand as they continue to understand ingredient statements and demand new standards. Only by establishing this mind-set and culture can you put power and authority in the hands of every employee-and that's a crucial endeavor, because you never know where that next innovation will appear.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Steven Addis is CEO of Addis, a brand strategy and design firm, based in Berkeley, California. He has consulted for clients such as Intel, PepsiCo, Electrolux, Kraft, Williams-Sonoma, LVMH, Dole and Blue Shield.

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