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In stunning proof that it's lonely at the top, Nabisco last week created a strange bedfellow for SnackWell's: Healthy Choice cookies and snacks.

Licensing the Healthy Choice name from ConAgra, Nabisco said it sees opportunity beyond SnackWell's in the "wellness category," a positioning other cookie marketers have failed to exploit on a par with SnackWell's.

"Wellness is a $1 billion business that shows no sign of abating," said Jerry Noonan, senior VP-marketing at Nabisco. "It's become mainstream, and the opportunity is there for us to have two brands positioned to complement each other."

The Healthy Choice snacks will be available next year.

Nabisco's "healthy" lineup already includes reduced-fat Chips Ahoy! and Oreos and Fat Free Newtons, in addition to the $500 million SnackWell's brand. "There's an outward extension that says [reduced-fat products] could become half our business someday," Mr. Noonan said. Reduced-fat cookies and crackers generated $800 million of Nabisco Biscuit Co.'s $3 billion in 1994 sales.

Analysts believe Nabisco could market its Healthy Choice products as reduced-calorie snacks to differentiate them from reduced-fat SnackWell's. Mr. Noonan wouldn't comment on product specifics.

Campbell Mithun Esty, Minneapolis, will create advertising for Healthy Choice cookies and crackers. The agency already handles $34 million in Healthy Choice frozen dinners, luncheon meats and other products.

"Healthy Choice is a very important name in the better-for-you category," said Roy Burry, an analyst with Oppenheimer & Co., New York. "The question is, does the Healthy Choice name transfer out of the frozen food cabinet and into the cookie or snack aisle?"

The name has transferred moderately well for Kellogg Co., which introduced Healthy Choice cereals in '94. In the year ended Aug. 13, the cereal had sales of $71 million, for a 0.9% share of the highly segmented $8.1 billion market, according to Information Resources Inc.

A ConAgra spokeswoman said Nabisco will finance marketing for the new line, with ConAgra maintaining final approval. The Healthy Choice cookies won't carry the Nabisco brand.

The licensing deal ConAgra struck with Kellogg gave the cereal marketer greater control over the product. The Kellogg brand appears on Healthy Choice cereal, and the advertising is handled by Kellogg agency Leo Burnett USA, Chicago.

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