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A few choice of words.

Yes, there can be too much of a good thing.

When it comes to food products, I am most definitely not pro-choice. It's all well and good to have a few options for the grocery cart - fresh OJ vs. concentrate, say, or light margarine vs. regular - but there is a limit beyond which any sane consumer is bound to throw up his or her hands and cry, "Enough, already."

And we seem to be hitting that limit, reported the Chicago Tribune recently, in an article bemoaning the myriad choices in food and beverage that now confront the average supermarket shopper. The number of new product introductions in grocery stores actually dropped in 1996 after peaking in 1995, according to the Tribune, while the concept of strong brand identity and personality is coming into its own once again.

As a consumer, I confess that I revel in the possibility of having fewer choices. Don't get me wrong - I love being able to choose among a couple different kinds of yogurt or spaghetti sauces. But when I'm faced with four or five permutations of my usual brand, my brain shuts off and I tend to reach for the same old thing every week. And that, in a nutshell, is why some food companies are starting to make major efforts to simplify product lines and reinvigorate brand identity.

Take Sara Lee, for instance. Last month it announced a three-year, $3 billion plan to sell off some of its manufacturing plants in order to focus more on marketing its well-known food brands. "We are going to de-verticalize the company," is how chairman John Bryan put it. "Our reason for success is we know how to select and put together products that the consumer likes and build value in the brands that we attach to those products."

Boston Market, too, has recently learned some lessons from offering consumers too many choices. After five years of steady growth, the company is facing mixed financial results that it blames on a line of sandwiches it launched last year. Consumers are so enthusiastic about the much-hyped sandwiches that they have been eating them for dinner instead of Boston Market's other products, cutting into dinner revenues. The company plans to get back to its original brand strength - home meal replacement - with a new line of prepackaged takeout meals, designed to compete directly with supermarket HMR offerings.

These are stories that I hope we'll see repeated in the months ahead, as companies realize that you can't keep branching out brand lines indefinitely and hope to keep consumers satisfied. It takes a lot more creativity and guts to narrow consumer choices while expanding brand loyalty - but it will be worth it in the long run.

Speaking of choices...

McDonald's and Burger King are at it again, bombarding consumers with still more of the same old thing. McDonald's is rolling out its new near-copy of the Whopper - called QPLT, The Big 'n Tasty, or The Rocker - while Burger King is Launching its new Big King, modeled after you-know-what. Talk about confusing brand identities.

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Title Annotation:food choice
Author:Brewster, Elizabeth
Publication:Food Processing
Date:Oct 1, 1997
Words:511
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