Splenda sweetens line as carb craze fades

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Even Splenda is playing to the moderates. While sales of the no-calorie sugar substitute have soared in large part as a result of the low-carb craze, many consumers are now moving on to diets easier to live with every day. Johnson & Johnson's McNeil Nutritionals latest offering, a half-sugar, half Splenda Blend for Baking, is aimed right at those consumers.

Moderation is a key message for several food and beverage marketers as they look to maintain long-term relevance. Coca-Cola Co. is pushing its mid-calorie C2 brand hard, Hershey Foods Corp. now offers the higher-sugar Carb Alternatives as an option to stricter 1 gram Sugar Carb and Sugar Free lines, and Unilever's biggest push for its Slim-Fast plan is the more balanced Optima diet, whose products feature up to 55% less sugar.

Marketing for the base Splenda brand will continue to focus on the no-calorie sweetener as good for cooking and baking. But Splenda Sugar Blend is intended to expand the brand by appealing to more serious bakers looking for attributes like rising and flakiness not possible without real sugar. TV advertising that breaks today from Alchemy, New York, offers, "You can have it all ... part Splenda, part sugar, pure magic."

John Leahy, director-marketing, Splenda, said, "The base Splenda created possibilities that didn't exist before for consumers because it is heat stable, but we realized that a lot of recipes stretched Splenda a little too much."

Now, he said, the brand wants to expand its consumer base-and the category-to those interested in "moderating their sugar without compromise." That includes further tapping groups including moms and families looking to reduce sugar in their households for weight or health concerns, Mr. Leahy said. "Beyond carb dieting, Splenda will have a role in consumers' lives." Cereal marketers General Mills and Kellogg Co. have both reached out to such sugar-fearing families with the launch recently of low-sugar varieties of some of their top kids' cereals.

Marketing spending for the national launch of the blend, which includes TV and print as well as consumer promotions and extensive sampling initiatives, will rival that spent for the base Splenda, against which McNeil put $22 million in measured media in 2003, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR. (See the spot at AdAge.com QwikFIND aaq10m).

quiet about calories

Like its no-calorie counterpart, advertising for the 50%-fewer calorie sugar blend will not explicitly talk about calories or carbs, instead focusing on a general better-for-you approach. Print and TV speak to the blend's ability to make cakes moist, cookies chewy and pastries light and flaky.

Mr. Leahy plans to look for partners, such as existing tie-ins with celebrity chefs including Food Network's Gale Gand, to introduce the brand to consumers via food media.

Splenda sales skyrocketed over the last two years, with sales up 100% in 2003 and expected to grow almost 90% this year, Mr. Leahy said. Information Resources Inc. data show the brand grew 63.2% to $160 million in food, drug and mass outlets excluding Wal-Mart for the 52 weeks ended Oct. 3. Merisant Corp.'s Equal dropped 11% to $66 million and Cumberland Packing Corp.'s Sweet `N Low was down 4.7% to $53 million for the same period.

According to John Stanton, professor of food marketing at St. Joseph's University, the blend could be successful if it delivers on real sugar taste. But, he said, "with the low-carb fad fading as fast as Haley's Comet, people are starting to realize that it doesn't matter where your calories come from, if you eat too many of them, you're going to get fat." That shift toward good old calorie counting, he said, could mean difficulties for Splenda Sugar Blend.

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