COVID wave of simplification has marketers pulling back on products
The decades-long variety boom has run into the brick wall of COVID-19, which is limiting consumer's choices beyond how often they leave home and where they go. Marketers across a wide range of industries and categories are pumping out fewer new products and cutting back on old ones, resulting in an unprecedented wave of simplification.
While some marketers think the new simplification will fade along with other behavior changes borne of pandemic necessity once the crisis ends, others see the simplification as a long-overdue reckoning.
Either way, the change is a dramatic and fundamental shift from more than a generation of marketing orthodoxy, when more was almost always better. Cuisines from around the world became increasingly popular in the U.S. starting in the 1990s, mirroring immigration and ethnic diversity. Then e-commerce created nearly limitless virtual store shelves. And marketers of everything from cleaning wipes to crackers piled on endless waves of new scents and flavors in the name of appealing to niche tastes and having something new to market. So if McDonald’s customers wanted Egg McMuffins at 11 p.m., why not let them?
Then came the pandemic. Sales of Clorox Wipes soared, but Clorox has had to cut back on the number of scents and pack sizes just so its factories could try to keep up with the unprecedented demand. Coca-Cola began culling underperforming products as sales slid, and Unilever cut back on new product launches. McDonald’s stopped selling breakfast items all day to help keep up with increased traffic at drive-thrus.
While some of these moves stem from slow sales, most are actually driven by surges in demand for dining at home and raw materials, or shortages of packaging. Yet marketers are discovering that the decline in variety generally isn’t hurting sales.
From January through August, the number of new food and beverage products launched in the U.S. declined 13% vs. the year-ago period, according to Datamonitor (the one exception is alcoholic beverages, driven by hard seltzers). This year’s new product decline is the first Datamonitor has measured since 2011, and even then the drop was a far more modest 5%. But despite fewer new products, sales in stores have soared 10% or more each month since March, according to Nielsen data from Bernstein Research.
How long will it last?
One big question is how long the simplification trend lasts. “I think at some point you’re going to have this pent-up demand for new and different, and the floodgates will open up again,” says Tom Vierhile, VP of strategic insights for Euromonitor. “But this also exposes the fact that the explosion of choice has gotten out of hand. This has provided supermarkets with an excuse to really rationalize, as well as product marketers.”
The decline in new product activity isn’t universal, Vierhile notes. Alcoholic beverage launches are up year over year, led by the explosion of hard seltzers, so some trends—and the shift from drinking at bars to drinking at home—have defied the simplification surge.
But the product paring was really just a long-overdue reckoning for many brands, says Don Stuart, managing partner of Cadent Consulting Group. Marketers and retailers now are shifting their focus to “what I would call the iconic SKUs,” he says. COVID-19 accelerated the process of determining what’s really a valuable variety, and what’s needless duplication, Stuart says, “and people have seen they can trim assortment without sacrificing any demand.”
Coca-Cola Co. is among the best examples. The company has been talking about doing away with “zombie brands” for two years, but with the pandemic led it to really bring out the machete.
Speaking on an investor call in July, Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey said half the company’s products produce only 2% of sales. “At the outset of the pandemic, our goal was to ruthlessly prioritize core brands and SKUs to strengthen the resilience of our supply chain,” Quincey said. “The learnings from the last several months and the insights from our already accelerated SKU rationalization has convinced us to go even deeper.”
That has even meant stopping expensive direct store-chilled delivery of a once high-flying brand Odwalla in favor of more promising newer brands including Topo Chico. But Quincey said Coca-Cola won’t give up on all small brands, or stop trying to develop new challenger brands. On Friday Coke confirmed it was axing Tab, the one-time pioneering diet soda brand that had been relegated to limited distribution in recent years, as well as Coca-Cola Life, a cane sugar and stevia-sweetened version of the cola that debuted in the U.S. in 2014.
Clorox had to stop making many scents and varieties of Clorox Wipes just to keep up with a pandemic-fueled surge in demand—as much as 500% over a year ago, says Chief Marketing Officer Stacey Grier. Obviously, it hasn’t hurt business, since the company still can’t keep Clorox Wipes on shelves long before they’re snatched up. And it’s unclear how long it will be before supply can fully keep up with demand as the company tries to catch up.
End of the late-night McMuffin?
McDonald’s discovered that ending all-day availability of breakfast items including Egg McMuffins and hash browns early in the pandemic helped speed orders and improve accuracy. The fast feeder is sticking with that decision for now, even though all-day breakfast was a huge hit when introduced five years ago. In a statement, the company said any decision to resume all-day breakfast would be based on consumer demand and avoiding operational disruption.
McDonald’s does plan to add apple fritters, blueberry muffins and cinnamon rolls at all hours starting Oct. 28, because those items don’t take much attention in its kitchens. “I think it is a safe bet that you're going to see us add items back to the menu,” CEO Chris Kempczinski said on the company’s second-quarter conference call. “I think it's also equally a safe bet that we're not going to go all the way back to where we were.” And third-quarter comparable sales rose 4.6%, nearly as much as they rose a year earlier, even without all-day breakfast.
The simplification movement also has come to health and personal care, a notoriously cluttered category.
“In our desire to ensure consumers have availability of the basics, we have pared back some of our lines,” says Andrew Barraclough, head of design for GSK. "The way to ensure you are delivering for your consumers and [retail] customers is to take some complexity out of the system. I think that could well be a benefit going forward. People may realize we have been overly complex, so let’s get back to making sure our choices are doing what’s really important for our customers.”
On the other hand, the driving trend in health and wellness prior to the pandemic was personalization, fueled in part by the growth of e-commerce, Barraclough says. And that may figure more prominently again after the pandemic.
Retail issues push simplification
Along with simplification, e-commerce has grown dramatically during the recession. Yet, even as e-commerce offers the seemingly endless shelf, the pandemic also has exposed limits. The surge in demand created logistical bottlenecks for Amazon in March, for example, that forced it to give slower-moving items lower priority and longer delivery times. While those issues have eased, they’re not entirely over.
“The endless shelf is a nice concept, but it’s ultimately a pain in the neck,” Stuart says. “While there’s more variety, it’s not endless.”
In physical stores, there was already pressure on shelf space in the center of stores because of growing interest from retailers and consumers in fresh produce, deli and other periphery departments. At the same time, growth of curbside pickup of online orders means more stores need space to operate mini fulfillment centers, which could also eat into shelf space.
The pandemic also has helped expose the fact that some categories are simply too cluttered. If they do go into stores, consumers are less likely to want to stand at shelves a long time close to other shoppers, says Claudine Patel, CMO of North American Health for RB (Reckitt Benckiser). But over-the-counter drugs are notoriously hard to shop, with research showing people spend an average of at least 30 seconds deciding what to buy—a long time in packaged goods.
“Simplification is one aspect” of solving the problems, she says, though RB is also looking at ways to help improve consumer navigation at stores.
Outside marketer control
Regardless of what marketers want to do, much of the new simplification is driven by things outside their control. The massive shift from out-of-home to in-home dining has led to supply-chain bottlenecks that make it harder to get certain kinds of packaging—from aluminum trays to plastic bottle caps—Datamonitor’s Vierhile notes. So marketers have had to prioritize their biggest sellers, cut back on variety, or delay new product launches. And consumers have gotten used to finding empty shelves and less variety.
“Behavior is exceedingly difficult to change once it’s established,” Stuart says, and now pandemic-era behaviors are becoming established. “There will be some backstepping,” toward product proliferation eventually, he says. “But it’s not going to go back to where it was.”
Contributing: Jessica Wohl, E.J. Schultz