Until recently, the brand could be found only as an ingredient in other marketers' products. But in a deal with sugar king Domino, it's breaking out with a product trio that features its red-swirl logo on backgrounds that deliberately trade on years of branding by competitors Equal (blue), Sweet'N Low (pink) and Splenda (yellow).
"Sweetener users have been trained to look for the color packet that represents a certain sweet taste profile," said a spokeswoman for NutraSweet. "Consumers use sweeteners by color. Our goal is to improve each color."
In other words, though it may look like rivals, it's claiming to outdo them. "We're doing something that's never been done before: reformulating each of the sweetener varieties available today and making them different and better," CEO Craig Petray said in a statement.
Mr. Petray wouldn't discuss its marketing plans for the products, handled by Black Twig Communications, Melville, N.Y., and Design Kitchen, Chicago, for digital marketing. But NutraSweet will have to be fairly aggressive to unseat entrenched rivals in a U.S. industry projected to reach $1 billion by 2010.
Of course, while NutraSweet may see imitation as the sincerest form of flattery, competitors may not be tickled pink. Splenda declined to comment, and representatives from Sweet'N Low did not return phone calls. Equal spokesman Jeff Leshay said, "Over the past 25 years, we've built the Equal brand into one of the most recognized low-calorie tabletop sweetener products in the world, with aided brand-awareness estimated at between 90% and 95% in North America. While we don't dismiss any competitor, we have an established base of loyal customers, and we're confident they'll continue to turn to Equal for a great-tasting zero-calorie sweetener."
Some experts don't give NutraSweet's bid a great chance of succeeding either. "Very often, when you see generic drug brands or food brands, they look to give cues in the name or the look of the packaging to indicate what actual brand it's meant to be compared with. This feels a little bit like that," said Hal Fass, a senior consultant at Consumer Dynamics. Except there's one big difference: "It's not a generic; it's a potentially powerful brand. ... Flagrantly mimicking the established leaders in each of those varieties of sweetener feels more like a generic brand and less like a challenger who's going to scrap their way to differentiating themselves."
At least one industry executive was surprised to hear that the new NutraSweet lines will be priced competitively with the category's top brands, having assumed it would be a low-price alternative.
While flavor profiles in the category are certainly associated with color to some degree, it's the individual brands that hold sway, experts said. And any brand awareness NutraSweet has built up as an ingredient will translate to success only if it is able to clearly distinguish itself from competitors, a point its strategy raises doubts about.
"The risk is that they won't develop their own clear brand. ... Consumers will view them as a lower-quality option trying to copy the leader. And any time you try to copy a leader, you lose a degree of authenticity," said Allen Adamson, managing director at Landor Associates.
Winning over customers, restauranteurs
Mario DiFalco, division manager-strategic marketing at the National Food Lab, also sees challenges in marketing the new products. "It makes total sense from a marketplace standpoint and a consumer need," he said. "But it's certainly a challenge on the marketing side, because there's a lot of activity in these areas to brand these ingredients both on their own as well as inclusions in other products."
Indeed, NutraSweet faces an uphill battle to get placement in restaurants and coffee shops. To gain momentum in the category, the brand will first have to win over customers in the grocery aisles by selling its "new and improved" message. To aid that proposition, it is giving away samples to consumers who complete a survey on its website.
"It does not look like they're going to be expanding the category, per se. Rather they're looking to take share of an existing category. There's a distinct difference in the degree of difficulty," said Gary Karp, exec VP at Technomic. "If they are able to get sufficient consumer pull in the retail side, then food-service operators will start to consider it. ... But unless there's a consumer proposition that [NutraSweet] can deliver on, I'm not sure why [the food-service industry] would adopt additional SKU's."
Sweetener scorecardThe U.S. sweetener market is expected to increase 4% year over year, reaching $1.4 billion by 2010. Here's a look at what NutraSweet is up against.
|COMPANY||McNeil Nutritionals||Cumberland Packing Corp.||Merisant Co.|
|MEASURED AD SPENDING||$36 million||$4million||$6 million|
|AGENCY||BBDO, New York, and Atmosphere||Pedone Advertising, New York||Brand Architecture, New York|
|TASTE PROFILE||Sucralose-based, medium-sweet||Saccharin-based, very sweet||Aspartame-based, lightly sweet|
|SALES, DOLLAR SHARE AT RETAIL||$226 million,
Sources: TNS Media Intelligence, Information Resources Inc., Ad Age research
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CORRECTION: An earlier version of the chart above listed Alchemy as Splenda's agency. BBDO, New York, and Atmosphere handle the brand.