No matter the industry, people like to talk about innovation. That’s because innovation is about positive change, and change is often a key component of growth for any business. In the competitive CPG space, innovation is a lofty word and is often confused with introducing any new item to a category.
While simple extensions with new varieties are important to staying fresh in consumers’ minds, they are not true innovation. Similarly, formula improvements demonstrate integrity and commitment to quality that is essential to maintaining brand loyalty. These are the bulk of new products launched each year—new twists on familiar themes.
Adding a flavor to a product line is one thing, but true innovation often involves disruption through changing the competitive environment or going outside of a category. Swiffer did this in household cleaning, creating completely new categories by offering something that competed with a mop, broom and dust cloth and was better than each or all of them combined. Swiffer disrupted household cleaning by setting a new standard of clean and providing the only tool that could achieve it.
Certain brands are well-positioned for innovation. Consider Arm & Hammer baking soda: It’s a food leavener, household cleaner, teeth whitener, deodorizer, antacid, laundry additive—it can even be used to put out fires. Given its diverse uses, it’s no surprise Arm & Hammer’s product line today includes toothpaste, laundry detergent and pet care products.
Other brands, however, are more constrained by their core product offerings, position within a category and by how consumers perceive them. Sweets companies can be so well distinguished as indulgent that they are especially prone to category confinement. To test this theory, I developed three new category concepts for iconic sweets brands and tested them with a representative audience of consumers.
The mock products were Reese’s Peanut Butter and Chocolate Milk, Ben & Jerry’s Hot Cereal and Starburst Flavored Vodka. Although all three brands are firmly rooted in the sweets and desserts category, the results indicated that they are more agile and have potential to break into completely new territory.
Ben & Jerry’s Hot Cereal had the highest purchase intent of the three, with 64% of consumers saying they would definitely or probably buy flavors Some Like it Maple or Cranberry Fields Forever to start their day. An ice cream producer moving into a healthy breakfast category might seem odd, but Ben & Jerry’s brand association with all-natural and great ingredient combinations likely gives them more flexibility than other dessert makers. The concept resonated slightly more with female respondents and with people ages 25 to 44.
Starburst Vodka performed less well, but still earned a 55% purchase intent score. The positive score is likely due to the existing popularity of fruit-flavored vodkas. Fortunately, consumers associate the Starburst brand enough with fruit and fruit flavors to accept a move into this category. Unsurprisingly, the idea of Starburst Vodka was most popular with a younger demographic, age 21 to 44, and didn’t resonate much with the 45-plus age groups.
Reese’s Peanut Butter and Chocolate Milk had the lowest score of the three concepts, with 50% purchase intent. Admittedly, peanut butter is a divisive ingredient, and it was one of the most common words appearing in open-end responses about what consumers both liked and disliked about the product. Reese’s has successfully extended into other categories like dessert toppings, cookies and cereal, but this concept went too far from the brand equity to generate strong appeal.
Successfully stretching a brand beyond the confines of current understanding requires a deep knowledge of brand equity and a willingness to risk the image of the brand in order to make a disruptive change. These concepts were my own inventions and leverage the well-known traits of each brand from a consumer point of view. While perhaps not truly disruptive, the appeal of these ideas proves that these reputable brands could offer much more to consumers than just an indulgent treat. Knowing your brand and building on the traits that are core to its essence allows marketers to extend into new and surprising spaces and drive truly incremental growth.