Benecol

Low cholesterol, low fat and low sales.

Pop quiz: Do you know what Benecol is? For the uninitiated, it’s a new light margarine that can help lower your cholesterol. With well-substantiated proof of its benefits and a proven track record in Europe, McNeil Consumer Products [a division of Johnson & Johnson] thought they had a hit on their hands prior to its U.S. release. But after a lot of advance hoopla and a reasonably big advertising and public relations campaign, the brand is already in a downward spiral. What went wrong?

The first and most obvious problem is the name. Benecol just doesn’t sound appetizing—it sounds more like a cough medicine than margarine. Apparently, McNeil wanted the brand to sound as if it offered benefits beyond just being low fat. The name is derived from “Benefits Cholesterol”—hence the “Bene-col,” and falls into the category that the grocery trade calls “functional foods.” But the name fails to make it clear to consumers what the benefit actually is. Contrast that with another recently introduced beneficial light spread from rival Unilever’s Lipton division—Take Control—a much more in-your-face name.

Also drawing criticism is the understated package graphics, which includes a lime green color that some people associate with mold in dairy products. With a front panel illustration depicting a mountain valley vista, critics contend that the product is selling a healthy lifestyle, not country living.

Finally, the retail price for Benecol is much higher than other spreads. A package of 21 individual servings in portion control cups sells for around $5.79, which works out to $14.35 a pound. Price this against other spreads: A comparable package of the aforementioned Take Control sells for about $7.98 a pound. Or consider Olivio Spread—brought to you by Lee Iaccoca, of all people—an olive oil based spread that consumers consider somewhat beneficial in cholesterol control and retails for around $1.99.

Packaging and price aside, the problem may be as simple as marketing. For a product such as Benecol to catch on with such a high retail price, the benefits must be repeatedly hammered home. Unfortunately for Benecol, many people don’t worry about their cholesterol level, even when told it’s “too high.” Many adults don’t visit their physician on a regular basis, and have no idea what their cholesterol level is. Others simply don’t realize the spread can be useful for them and fundamentally may not understand the brand, making the introduction of a new product line difficult if not impossible.

With several years and a good many dollars spent to gain approval to market the product here in the U.S., it could be considered prudent for the company to recoup its investment as fast as possible. Thus, before the brand was established with its unique selling proposition—i.e., it lowers cholesterol—it began introducing new items in other categories. The spread had barely reached store shelves when four varieties of Benecol Salad Dressing were announced—Creamy Italian, Thousand Island, Ranch and French Style. Then came Benecol Snack Bars, in Chocolate Crisp, Wild Strawberry and Peanut Crisp.

History tells us this was a mistake. Virtually no one has had success launching multiple products across categories simultaneously, or one right after the other. Healthy Choice from ConAgra and SnackWell’s from Nabisco were introduced in one basic category at a time. After Healthy Choice had established a position in the healthy frozen meal category, it expanded with some 300 plus brand extensions, including packs of hamburger, cereals and ice cream. SnackWell’s staked out its image and a successful following for low fat or no fat cookies in its manufacturer’s area of strength. Only then was it extended into more than 125 other products.

McNeil apparently plans to bear down and promote the line extensively through physicians. But it may be too little too late. Despite a top margin return, supermarkets will not continue to offer the brand shelf space if it gets virtually no promotion at the retail level and continues to show slow sales.

It’s up to you, the consumer, to keep the Benecol line alive despite initial marketing mistakes. You’ll need to act quickly, however, or a benefit to healthier living will disappear from the marketplace.