By Larry Teren
Is there transparency in big time product marketing and what does transparency even mean? Don’t expect anything but a transparent answer while we look at three nationally popular products.
Yesterday, I went to an office supplies store to purchase among other items cellophane tape. I was looking to replace a roll of transparent tape, you know- the one that you apply to the surface, place your fingernail down and rub it in. You almost cannot detect that there is tape. The wall display for all the cellophane tape had various rolls but I could not find anything labeled as “transparent tape”. Looking a little more closely now, I noticed that the brand being showcased had all their items listed as “magic tape”. One of the packages had a little cloudburst design with the word “invisible” over it. That’s what I wanted! But why didn’t they just leave it named “transparent tape”? That worked well for, I don’t know, forty or fifty years, maybe?
Not too long ago the beverage industry reported on the sales rankings of the various competitors within. It used to be a given for many, many years that Coca Cola was the number one seller and Pepsi number two in the soft drink wars and every one else hoping to get a mention. Now, the paradigm has shifted but Coke is still number one. Number two? Diet Coke, with Pepsi slipping to three.
The gamesmanship in trying to dominate the soft drink market is a hard fought battle. Coke does not sit on its laurels at the top of the perch. They do things to keep the consumer interested and willing to be challenged. A marketing genius decides that the name “Diet Coke” maybe has been milked (sorry) too much. It congers up to the consumer mind possibly a stale product with not much more room for growth. Or maybe Diet Coke represents a certain taste, flavor or purpose. After all, these is Diet Coke and Diet Coke Caffeine Free. Does that mean that if you get stuck with buying Diet Coke, you are getting too much caffeine squirted into your system? And if you start playing with the taste, consumers may feel that there must be complaints about it and are better off staying away.
So Coke comes out with Coke Zero. Zero obviously means zero calories but it lacks the negative connotation in someone else seeing you grab a Diet Coke. (“Oh, they’re on a diet. Got it!”) Thus, the word zero now gets associated with the Coca Cola company, but in a good way. Pepsi can’t use it or it looks like they are copycats, or can they try it in a subtle way?
Sprite is owned by Coke so they also have Sprite Zero.
On an airplane flight last August, the flight attendant offered me the customary free refreshment. I asked for Diet Sprite because it didn’t have caffeine (right?). She apologized and said she didn’t have any but had Sprite Zero and would I care for one. I said what’s the difference? She said there must be one but didn’t know. I took the Sprite Zero and my taste buds couldn’t tell either and didn’t care regardless. You could have called it Diet Lemon Lime No Caffeine Soda and I would have said, “fine- I’ll take it.”
I brought these observations up yesterday to a college professor of business marketing courses. He has been doing this for many, many years. I asked him if we consumers really respond to these subtle (okay, maybe not so subtle) Pavlovian methods of shaping our buying habits.
He replied, “Two words. Okay, if you want to be exact- three words. Procter and Gamble. They created Tide detergent decades ago. It is still at the top of the detergent market. They make sure to come out every few years with a new packaging design that catches the eye of the consumer.
Every one else copycats them. They also come out with variations of the chemicals used in the product that is always in the forefront of science and safety.”
I’m sure the cellophane tape company has a very good reason for calling their bread and butter product line magical and for switching the description of the one model I wanted. It probably has increased their profits. But, c’mon- would you go see a horror movie called “The Transparent Man”?