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In less than three years, Debra Sandler has seen Johnson & Johnson's startup initiative, the introduction of Splenda low-calorie sweetener, turn into a big success. When Ms. Sandler, 43, signed on to lead the launch of the product in early 2000 following FDA approval of the sucralose-based sugar substitute, the now worldwide group VP-marketing for J&J's McNeil Nutritionals was used to the large-scale consumer marketing budgets of former employer PepsiCo. But, she says, the smaller budget necessitated that she and her team develop an extremely consistent message and theme that would be directed at a "bull's-eye target."

It is that clarity that made the brand a "phenomenal success," she says. The message: Splenda is made with sugar and has greater cooking/baking possibilities than its competitors. This was carried through every communication from advertising to packaging. Through the key iced-tea drinking summer, the brand held a 40% dollar share of the nearly $300 million sweetener category in food, drug and mass outlets excluding Wal-Mart Stores, according to McNeil's data from Information Resources Inc. That trumped Merisant Co.'s longtime leading Equal brand and Cumberland Packing Co.'s Sweet & Low. Splenda is an ingredient in about 3,000 products globally, roughly half of those in the U.S., and major retailers like Wal-Mart have been clamoring for Splenda-based products to offer diet-hungry consumers.

Ms. Sandler says the market was ripe for a new sweetener with a great-taste message as "the obesity epidemic has people sitting up and re-evaluating their food choices." In terms of foodservice sales, she acknowledges that the brand has not been as strong in this crucial category. But she says it is a priority for the business. Splenda has signed a new distributor so that next year at this time, she hopes to have leadership there as well.

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