Nabisco Biscuit Co.'s SnackWell's brand is on the road to recovery.
Six months after a drastic overhaul that included a positioning change, product reformulation, a doubled budget and a seismic shift in ad direction, the effort is starting to pay off.
Sales are still far behind the brand's heyday of late 1995, but Nabisco has at least stanched the bleeding with its effort begun last July, even if it hasn't produced significant volume growth.
"In the second half sales were up, share is up and dramatically overstripped our forecasts," said Terry Preskar, senior business director for SnackWell's. "Our [dollar] sales trend went from negative 25% in the second half to plus 3% vs. a year ago." While she noted that "we're not declaring victory yet, we're very, very pleased with results so far."
"It's a Pyrrhic victory to claim victory with 3% growth," said Cannondale Associates consultant Ken Harris. "They needed to stop the hemorrhaging. They've done that. Now they need to build the brand. The proof of that will be in the next year and a half."
CORNER IS TURNED
DLJ Securities analyst Bill Leach, however, contended Nabisco might well have turned the corner.
"Nabisco's [total] cookie business has been up in the last four IRI's [Information Resources Inc.'s four-week data]. Even though they are paying for it [in terms of higher advertising and promotional costs], I'm definitely seeing improvement," Mr. Leach said.
The drama of SnackWell's early-'90s ascent has been rivaled only by that of its decline. When it was introduced in 1992, SnackWell's was a relatively new and on-target concept: Good tasting snacks with less fat than traditional cookies and crackers.
Powered by an omnipresent and fun ad campaign from Foote, Cone & Belding, New York, that showed women chasing after the "Cookie Man" for SnackWell's, the brand was so successful that by 1994 sales of the cookies topped that of Nabisco's best-sellers, Oreo and Chips Ahoy! included. That spring, the company ran ads apologizing for product shortages.
Flush with success, Nabisco eventually licensed the name to other companies across all categories, resulting in a $600 million-plus grocery franchise only three years after the brand's launch.
But as new better-for-you snacks came in, SnackWell's started to crumble. Consumers decided there were more indulgent and better-tasting alternatives.
SnackWell's cookie volume went from 4.9 million pounds for the four weeks ended June 18, 1995, according to IRI data obtained by Advertising Age, to 3.4 million for the four weeks ended June 16, 1996, a 30.6% drop. By the four-week period ended June 15, 1997, it was down to 2.9 million, skidding another 44.8% to 1.6 million for the four weeks ended June 21 of last year.
LOOKING FOR NEW DIRECTIONS
Nabisco cast about for new directions to stop the slide. It embraced a passion-themed approach; a 1997 ad from FCB showed a couple necking on the beach, but the object of her affection is actually the SnackWell's behind him. A promotion in January 1998 gave away $1 million.
What the brand was lacking, Ms. Preskar said, was a dedicated focus on women, SnackWell's most devoted audience. So the turnaround strategy that got underway in July of last year aimed right at them.
Initial ads associated the brand with affirmation. Against scenes of sisterhood and family, the voice-over said eating SnackWell's is about "feeding your self-esteem," "treating yourself well" and "fulfilling yourself."
"We want to spend our money against women," Ms. Preskar said. "Our earlier focus was very tactical, very cents-off [oriented], which doesn't build a relationship with women."
$60 MIL FOR ADVERTISING
Nabisco also promised to double the weight behind the campaign, to $60 million annually.
Spending figures from Competitive Media Reporting show that SnackWell's received $10 million in measured media during August and September 1998, the most recent figures available. In the six months before the relaunch, spending was measured at $16.3 million.
The marketer then launched new products with slightly higher fat content but a big uptick in flavor: Mint Creme and Caramel Delight cookies and, later, Streusel Squares for breakfasts on the go.
Although Nabisco's new efforts are only for cookies and crackers, there appears to be a halo effect among licensed SnackWell's products as well. Sales of the total SnackWell's franchise have risen from $274 million in 1997 to $350 million in 1998.
Nabisco also is building its relationship with the primary target market by creating a Web site (www.snackwells.com) aimed at women, and with ongoing direct mail augmented by women-targeted promotions.
GIRLS INC. PROMO
The first such promotion started with a Jan. 3 free-standing insert that ties in with Girls Inc., an organization that promotes "strong, smart, bold," young women. The ad promoted mother/daughter workshops.
In March, Nabisco will start up a promotion offering a mother/daughter photo journal with the purchase of SnackWell's products-a build-up to Mother's Day.
While reluctant to tip her hand further, Ms. Preskar said there will be new SnackWell's lines in the second quarter, and new executions of the ad campaign.
"We're not done yet," Ms. Preskar said. "We want to continue to drive [sales volume] upward."
And that may still take some time, she admitted.
"After our sales height in 1995, we declined 20% to 30% per year through the