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Trend or fad, it's not always clear: making educated guesses in the game of consumer whims.

Crystal Pepsi. Mini-snacks. Dry beer.

Today, they're litter along the road to marketing oblivion, paved with the good intentions of food and beverage companies. They once looked like trends, but they turned out to be fads.

How could such smart folks be so wrong? Actually, it's fairly easy. Just ask Jack Gordon, president of AcuPOLL Precision Research, a Cincinnati consumer concept testing service, one of the many who touted clear beverages as clear winners six years ago.

"It's one of the hardest things to do in marketing, to figure out what's a trend and what's a fad," Gordon says. "A fad looks very much like a trend when it gets started."

Crystal Pepsi was the beginning of a wave that included Zima malt beverage from Coors (clear beer). "Saturday Night Live" even did a spoof commercial for a product called "Crystal Gravy." But that was after the fad had already become almost a self-parody, jumping the beverage aisle in the forms of Procter & Gamble Co.'s oxymoronic clear Ivory dishwashing liquid and clear gasoline from Amoco.

Yet even when the trend had clearly become a fading fad and Crystal Pepsi was down for the count, some products, such as Clearly Canadian, stuck on shelves with niche followings in the New Age beverage category.

The experience helped Gordon clarify the difference between fads and trends: "You have to ask yourself whether the benefit that's making this product work is real and likely to last a long time. Clear beverages tested so well ... but the only benefit they were selling was that they were more natural, which they really weren't. It was just a gimmick."

Like other expert trend watchers, Gordon says one sure way of separating fads from trends is finding out whether fads meet identifiable needs in the marketplace. The tricky part is identifying the needs, separating them from whims, and knowing whether the product really meets them.

Even the best marketers make mistakes. Take Nabisco, whose SnackWell's megabrand of fat-reduced products is, along with ConAgra's Healthy Choice, among those Gordon identifies as the best at playing the trend toward low-fat foods. But Nabisco is also the inventor of mini-snacks - including miniature versions of Oreos and Ritz Bitz that, while they remain on the market, were clearly more fad than trend, acknowledges spokeswoman Ann Smith.

Philadelphia-based consumer trend expert Mona Doyle distinguishes between fads and trends by looking for evidence of consumer behaviors or intentions that cross many lines of behavior or many categories. One example is the trend toward premium products, which cuts across a wide swath of categories, including bread, coffee, beer and ice cream.

"I would say the key trend right now is getting full satisfaction from what you eat and a feeling of entitlement to great pleasure," Doyle says.

Harry Balzer, vice president of NPD Group in Park Ridge, Ill., who has spent 15 years studying what people eat, looks at food trends even more broadly and boils them down to two basic factors.

"To see if something is going to be a long-term structural change in the way you eat or just a fad," he says, "I ask if it's either making life easier for me or making it cheaper."

The key trend in food today is avoiding preparation altogether, Balzer says. "Whoever can make whatever part of the meal the easiest is probably winning, whether it's pre-cut salads or Boston Market take-home chicken."

Balzer explains food trends that don't fit neatly inside his economical easier/cheaper paradigm with a third factor, which is really the non-trend of resistance to change. That helps explain the move toward reduced-fat products, which are now consumed by 90 percent of the population, Balzer says. "Those products have allowed us not to change our behavior at a time when we're pressured to change. We can just eat reduced-fat versions of what we used to eat."

But Balzer's easier/cheaper theory still doesn't explain the trend toward premium products.

That's one that Tom Pirko, president of Bevmark, a New York City beverage consulting firm, chalks up to a change in taste.

"If there's one trend that cuts across food and beverage right now, it's this desire not only for better and more expensive but also for more flavor, more identity, more authenticity," Pirko says. "People want more character," he adds, noting that the trend didn't transfer to the political category to lead him - or a lot of other people - to vote for Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole.

Balzer, who tracks mainly growth of categories vs. shifts in segments, says development of a premium segment is largely a function of category size. "If you give me a category the size of coffee, I'll find enough people who will buy an expensive cup of coffee to make it worthwhile."

The premium segment in any category tends to reach a 10 percent dollar market share, says Mike Mondello, a former marketing executive for such premium brands as Celestial Seasonings and Earth's Best Baby Food who now leads Seattle-based SeaBear on a quest to develop a premium seafood brand. But before that 10 percent segment becomes worthwhile to marketers, the category has to reach a size to make the effort worthwhile, Balzer says.

Unfortunately, formulas and paradigms don't readily explain why some fads never grow up to be trends. That's particularly true in beverages, which tend to move more based on image and marketing than intrinsic benefits, says Pirko.

How else to explain a product like Jolt, the caffeine-laden cola launched in the late 1980s and given a prognosis of less than six months to live by conventional wisdom? Jolt has survived as a niche product, Pirko says, largely because of its image appeal to teen boys.

But both Pirko and Gordon see little promise in such caffeine-fortified beverages as Water Joe or "suspended globule" drinks from Clearly Canadian and Mistic, or Goldschlagel Beer with suspended bits of gold. All of them seemed aimed at creating sensations similar to Jolt, but Pirko says "they couldn't get enough people to bite and say it was strange and fascinating and yucky all at the same time."

In gauging a product or category's staying power, Pirko considers demographics more important than shape of the growth curve. If the product hits with teens or young adults in coastal metropolitan areas and without artificially low prices or high ad spending, it's more likely to become a trend.

Peer influence is another key factor, but one that's easier to see than to measure, Pirko says. For instance, in evaluating the staying power of Evian bottled water, he says: "When we saw young girls carrying bottles of Evian everywhere almost as markers . . . we knew there was enough strength in the brand to create a long-term trend."

RELATED ARTICLE: SUCCESSFUL TRENDS

Low-fat, high-taste snacks (such as Baked Lays and Tostitos)

Dual branding (such as Pillsbury SnackWell's Brownies)

Low-fat candy

Anything to do with baked potatoes (from SnackWell's Baked Potato Crisps to Ore-Ida Twice-Baked Potatoes)

Microbrews

Gourmet breads and coffees

Mexican foods

Anything with the Oreo name on it

UNSUCCESSFUL TRENDS

Clear beverages

Ice-brewed beers

Cold coffee products

Vitamin or caffeine-fortified drinks

Vegetable-based meat substitutes

Heart-healthy oils (Olive and canola oil - not enough flavor or health benefit)

Any kind of pizza snack

TRENDS TO WATCH

Pre-cooked meats

Prepared salads

Return to indulgence

Italian pastas and sauces

Low-calorie foods

Complete fat substitutes (including a fat-free - as opposed to fat-reduced - megabrand)

Nutraceuticals

Source: AcuPOLL Precision Research.
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Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Neff, Jack
Publication:Food Processing
Date:Dec 1, 1996
Words:1241
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