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Saturday, December 02, 2006

Heinz All Natura Cleaning Vinegar

Confusing the customer

Heinz’s All Natural Cleaning Vinegar was the food-maker’s first non-food item. The company, which had been founded by Henry Heinz in 1869, had made its name selling its ‘57 Varieties’ – good value, pre-packaged food such as baked beans, soup and ketchup – and decided in the 1980s to extend its brand into other household goods.

First off the mark was the All Natural Cleaning Vinegar, an eco-friendly, all-purpose vinegar carrying a red symbol with the words ‘Heloise’s Most Helpful Hint’. Heloise is the US newspaper columnist responsible for the ‘Hints from Heloise’ column, which is syndicated across the globe. It was a logical endorsement as Heloise had long been an advocate of the various and miraculous uses of vinegar – as a rust remover, deodorizer, window cleaner, ant detergent, weed killer and defroster. In addition to this support, the product also received a substantial amount of positive PR from the press, which had picked up on the green angle of the product.

None of this mattered though. The product was a complete flop and never appeared beyond the United States. When marketing commentators attempted to explain why the vinegar had failed to take off, they blamed the ‘alternative’ perception of the new product.

In her 1998 book, Green Marketing: Opportunity for Innovation Jacquelyn Ottman uses the case of the Heinz All Natural Cleaning Vinegar to illustrate the changing market attitudes towards environmentally-friendly products:

‘With green a moving target, planning gets tricky; industry can only respond as quickly as the market demands. This poses the risk of rushing greener products to market to serve the demands of influential customers while mass consumers may be unaware of the need for change. The green marketplace is rife with examples of less than perfect timing.’

Ottman then goes on in depth to explain why she believes the Heinz product failed:

Introduced in response to the newly discovered need of chemophobics, Heinz’s Cleaning Vinegar, a double-strength version of the normal product, flopped when introduced into supermarkets as an alternative cleaning aid. The mass consumer didn’t know what to make of it. While greater consumer marketing and educational efforts no doubt would have helped enhance its chance of success, the product opportunity may have been better served by a niche strategy, distributing the product in health-food stores and green-product catalogs until enough of the mass market was prepared to switch to the ecologically-conscious offering.

However, there is another reason why consumers may have been wary. Heinz was a food brand. If the company produced a vinegar, consumers would expect to be able to pour it over their meals. They didn’t expect to find it sitting alongside the bottles of bleach and household detergents.

Of course, for Heinz, the decision to launch the product was a thoroughly logical one. After all, the company already produced vinegar, so why not intensify the strength of that product to create a new one? As Ottman explains in her book, ‘many green products on the market today represent small enhancements or tweaks to existing ones.’

But the ‘tweaks’ to Heinz’s original product had moved the brand away from its core identity – namely, that of a food manufacturer. The fact that both vinegar and Heinz are normally associated with things you can eat only made the product more confusing for the customer. In other words, as All Natural Cleaning Vinegar was based on an existing, edible Heinz vinegar, the

product only served to reaffirm the perception of Heinz as a producer of food.

The only trouble was, the cleaning vinegar wasn’t food. As a result, it failed.

Lessons from Heinz

  • Stick to what you know. But more importantly, stick to what your customers know. If you’re a food brand that means one thing. If you can’t eat it, you can’t sell it.
  • Expand within the limits of your brand perception. Heinz may be most associated with ketchup but it has numerous other brand successes, and frequently launches new products. Heinz shows that you can extend your line as far as you want, providing you remain true to your core identity or brand perception.
  • Adopt a niche strategy for a niche product. Heinz All Natural Cleaning Vinegar was distributed and marketed as a mainstream product, although it only appealed to a niche market.