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Consumers say they want low-calorie food, so it's easy to see why so many people gave rice cakes a shot when Quaker Oats Co. acquired the business from Arden Organics in 1985. But con-sumers got their fill after the first bland bite.

The first two things Quaker did was "things [we] do very well, national marketing and national distribution," says Polly Kawalek, 40, president of Quaker Snacks.

But the brand still had "good awareness and high trial, but poor repeat," she says.

The repeat was so poor, in fact, that by 1987, "the business was down to $30 million [from about $32 million] and going south," she recalls. That's when Ms. Kawalek stepped in.

In March 1992, she and her brand group hit on the answer: Caramel.

"Nothing immediate happened when it [Quaker caramel-flavored rice cakes] came out," she says. "But what became clear [after about eight months] is that you had enormous consumer word-of-mouth about the product."

That translated into sales. Sales tripled from $33 million in 1992 to $99 million a year later on the strength of the caramel flavor, along with a mini rice cake in both caramel and apple cinnamon varieties.

"That's the impact caramel had," says Ms. Kawalek. "It was pure product innovation, print advertising and consumer word-of-mouth."

Word-of-mouth also is the theme of TV advertising Ms. Kawalek added to the mix in January 1994. Now airing in 20% of the country, the testimonial-style ads from Berry-Brown Advertising, Dallas, are tagged, "Some things are too good to keep to yourself."

Now the product is doing so well that Quaker had to increase capacity this May to keep up.

"No one expected these items would double our penetration," she says, adding that the figure jumped from 14% in 1990 to 25% this year.

"Not a marketer alive would take a product with eight years' experience and expect it to more than double penetration."

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