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When Holes in Markets Can’t Be Filled

Posted in Branding, Guest Bloggers, Marketing, Product Packaging

 —David Mitchel, Vice President of Norton Mitchel Marketing

Successful brands often find holes in markets that need to be filled. There are numerous examples to illustrate this point. Microsoft found a great niche in the computer software market and their success made Bill Gates one of the richest individuals on the planet. Apple’s iPod was a product innovation that really enhanced the company’s bottom line. In the 1980’s, Porsche expanded their line of sports cars into a new niche with the 944 and it helped save the company from bankruptcy. However, sometimes holes exist for a reason and they can’t be filled despite the best branding efforts.

The latest example to illustrate this is Devotion Vodka. Devotion Vodka is a protein based vodka. The protein used in Devotion is casein, the same type of protein found in dairy products. According to its website, Devotion is "the world’s first and only 80 proof, triple-distilled casein infused vodka made in the USA". Recently, Devotion announced that they signed Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino of "Jersey Shore" fame to be their spokesperson. Additionally, The Situation will have an equity stake in the company. I believe The Situation is a reasonably qualified spokesperson for this brand. The Situation likes to drink and party as evidenced by his actions on "Jersey Shore" and he is also a fitness enthusiast.

Despite the alignment between The Situation and Devotion Vodka, it is unlikely that this will be a successful brand. This is because the product concept is flawed. The vodka is aimed at a fitness oriented individual. However, vodka is not perceived as a fitness oriented beverage. Additionally, I believe that people will have a hard time understanding how casein protein fits into a hard alcohol product. If the product concept flaw wasn’t a convincing enough argument, consider Devotion’s pricing strategy. Devotion will enter the market similarly priced to Grey Goose. Grey Goose is a vodka brand that is well perceived and associated with quality. It also holds cachet with those who live a Jersey Shore style lifestyle, a target market for the Devotion brand. In a consumer purchase decision between Devotion and Grey Goose, the vast majority of consumers should choose Grey Goose because of its brand equity and stronger price-value proposition.

Crystal Pepsi is the classic story of a brand attempting to fill a hole in the market that could not be filled. Crystal Pepsi was PepsiCo’s version of New Coke, an utter marketing disaster that has been a part of marketing lore for years. Crystal Pepsi aimed to have the taste of regular Pepsi with a clear color and no caffeine. The product concept was quite flawed. It appears that Pepsi was trying to reinvent the wheel when the wheel did not need to be reinvented.

Pepsi had been doing reasonably well around the time that Crystal Pepsi reached the market in the early 1990s. Pepsi had been known for being a tastier alternative to the leading brand in cola, Coca-Cola. In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, Pepsi had promoted the fact that consumers preferred the taste of it as compared to Coca-Cola. Pepsi’s market share gains in the early 1980s were a factor in prompting Coca-Cola to develop the New Coke brand.

By the early 1990s, Pepsi was looking for a new competitive advantage. In the early 1990s, there was a trend towards clarity and purity in marketing. Ivory Soap was a leader in this trend, producing ads such as these touting its purity. Around this time, Coors Brewing Company produced Zima, a clear colored alcoholic beverage that was an alternative to beer. Zima was successful for a short period in the 90s, but was discontinued in the USA. Amoco touted clear gasoline. Pepsi felt that clear and pure was the wave of the future. Hence, Crystal Pepsi was developed as a product with a cola taste and a clear look. In 1992, the brand performed well in test markets. In 1993, the brand launched with much fanfare. During Super Bowl XXVII in January 1993, Pepsi aired this one minute long commercial featuring the Van Halen song "Right Now", a song that was popular at the time.

With Crystal Pepsi, it was apparent that PepsiCo did not realize that cola drinkers expected their colas to be dark, like Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Dr. Pepper. Consumers also had expectations for clear soda based upon Sprite and 7 Up. When Crystal Pepsi failed to fit into either bucket, consumers failed to adopt it as a beverage of choice. Soon after this, Crystal Pepsi tried to reformulate to be more like Sprite or 7 Up, but that reformulation failed as well, as it was perceived as undifferentiated by the masses. PepsiCo learned the hard way that there was no market for a clear, caffeine free product that had the taste of a dark cola.

An ongoing experiment in market niches is Dial’s attempt to make soaps and body washes based on yogurt proteins. In 2007, Dial launched this line of products, believed to the first time that a yogurt based bathing product was mass marketed . It is currently available in Aloe Vera, Vanilla Honey and Apricot & Almond varieties. With the Dial Yogurt line, it is plagued by somewhat different issues than the previous two product scenarios. The product concept is not as flawed as the previous two products. Dial’s yogurt protein mixture has some tangible benefits to the skin but it is still perceived as somewhat unusual. I believe that it is significantly due to the way Dial has chosen to position the product. Dial has significantly played up the fact of the yogurt element, and nowhere is that more evident than in its packaging. When a consumer sees this packaging, it is likely to cause confusion. Since yogurt is so prominently a part of the promotion of the product, a consumer is likely to think about yogurt when seeing it. When people think about yogurt, they do not associate yogurt with bath soap and body wash. It is easy to conclude that consumers do not desire to bathe in yogurt. This is where a consumer could get confused in the decision making process and choose another brand of soap/body wash.

A packaging and positioning redesign should be in order. Packaging that de-emphasizes the word yogurt would be a great start. In positioning and promoting the product, Dial should emphasize the benefits of yogurt protein, and should never use the word yogurt without the word protein. When yogurt is used alone, it conjures up imagery that detracts from the unique selling proposition of the yogurt. When a brand promotes itself, it should use words and imagery that enhance the proposition of the product, not detract from it. These changes should make this line of products more successful in the marketplace.

Devotion Vodka and Crystal Pepsi are prominent examples of products developed based upon a perceived niche in the market that didn’t truly exist. Because the niche was not large enough to be successful, the product concept was flawed. With Dial’s line of yogurt soaps, they may have actually found a niche in the market that could make sense. However, Dial’s choices in promoting and positioning this brand haven’t made it clear to consumers that they have a unique product that can satisfy their needs in a way that no other brand can. If Dial doesn’t adjust elements of the marketing mix, they will not tap into the potential for success.

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