The Curse of Plentitude

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by: Jennifer Rice

Today's Washington Post offers an interesting article on new product introductions:

Can you name a single new product that was launched last year? I'm talking about packaged food and consumer goods that you'd find in a supermarket, a drugstore or a big discounter such as Target. How about Glad Press 'n Seal, which is kind of like plastic wrap minus its most annoying attributes? Or how about Hershey's Swoops chocolate slices? The Intuition razor? Clorox's Bleach Pen?

If even one of those rings a bell, you're doing pretty well. There are only 33,677 others you don't know about.

What I've been wondering is why so many new products are being introduced these days in the first place. Manufacturers brought out 53 percent more last year than they did 10 years ago, when just 21,986 items were unveiled…

Boston communications firm Schneider & Associates has found a growing number of consumers are unable to recall anything new to the market. "Fifty percent of the consumers we polled on the Internet could not name a single new product that was launched last year," said President Joan Schneider, who is writing a book called "New Product Launch: 10 Proven Strategies." "Advertisers spent $249 billion in 2003 launching new products. That's pretty disappointing."

It's especially sad since consumer awareness dropped from the previous year, even though advertisers spent more. In 2002, Schneider's survey found, just 33 percent of consumers couldn't name a single product after advertisers had spent $233 billion promoting them…

Which gets back to what motivates manufacturers to spin out so many new ideas and line extensions. There is the defensive aspect of product rollouts, of course, but there's also the opportunistic side of the business, which at the moment is contributing to the plethora of low-carb food items landing on supermarket shelves.

It's also about growth, because new flavors and sizes and variations on existing brands are relatively quick ways to gain market share… Publicly traded manufacturers are also eager to show shareholders how much they're innovating, pushing them to identify niche markets that can be targeted. Now there's practically a product for every niche, but every time a new niche is identified, everyone else jumps on it too.

I don't know if it's possible to ever go back to 21,000 annual product introductions, or if that would even make a difference. But the frenzy we're in now isn't working: In an all-out effort to make products more exciting, manufacturers and marketers have only made consumers more indifferent.

Reminds me of a couple recent posts on plentitude: Stop the Madness (mine) and When is Enough about Enough Enough? (Chris Lawer). The frenzy is definitely not working.

So what's the solution? How can consumer goods companies continue to push forward without creating more consumer apathy? Not having worked on any CPG accounts, I defer to those of you who may be more experienced in this area. Comments welcome!

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