Mars plays safe with lower-fat countline

Mars is hitting back with its low-fat Bar, but critics argue that there is more work to do before it can rest.

Chocolate confectionery manufacturers spent 89m last year convincing consumers to buy their products. It worked and the UK spent 3.4bn on everything from Kit-Kat to Mars Bar and Cadbury’s new great hope the Fuse Bar – a five per cent year on year growth.

This is substantial growth in a market which has changed little in 20 years. The top 20 brands would be familiar to anybody who had spent the past two decades in outer space. This has led to perennial accusations of a lack of innovation in the market.

Now one of those manufacturers – one which has always prided itself on full-blooded, full-fat chocolate bars – is entering virgin territory to launch a low-fat Mars Bar, Mars Light (MW January 24). The official Mars line is that the technology now exists to produce a low-fat bar that can deliver the same taste as the main brand.

“Mars never said that it would not enter the low-fat market on principle,” says a Mars source, “but it has not previously been able to deliver the values of the top-selling brand in a low-fat format. Now it can.”

Cynical observers suggest it is a desperate move by Mars to stimulate the Mars Bar, which has been losing market share in recent years from six per cent in 1994 to 5.6 per cent last year, according to IRI Infoscan. Advertising support behind the brand has also been reduced. Critics accuse the company of lacking “real ideas” and instead taking the easy option of extending a brand, risking cannibalisation of the main brand or, worse, undermining its positioning, rather than launching a new one.

All of which Mars denies. “Mars is always looking for new product ideas to extend the market – the total sector is continuing to grow in a difficult climate where people appear to have traditional tastes,” says Mars head of external relations Gordon Storey. “We would not be launching Mars Light if we were simply going to steal consumers from the main brand.”

If you look at the success it has had with Milky Way Lite, the US version of Mars Light, and the growth in the low-fat confectionery market Mars may be making a wise move. It is also significant that the Mars Bar is the first mainstream countline brand to move into the low-fat sector.

“This is a colossal opportunity,” says one source who has worked closely with Mars in the past. “Mars is a commercial company that will not let dogma get in the way of exploiting a good marketing opportunity. The brand was built on the ‘work, rest and play’ slogan but that tag has become iconic and the brand will not be damaged by moving away from either the tag or developing a low-fat variant.”

Mars Light will be launched in regional tests after Easter. If successful, it will be rolled out nationally later this year.

The packaging and design will mirror that of the main brand but it will have a 25 per cent lower fat content – the mini mum reduction that allows it to attach “low-fat” to the wrapper.

The test launch will have television advertising support and coincides with the decision to drop the “work, rest and play” tag from its main brand advertising. D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles is the roster agency for the main Mars brand. Its St Louis office handled the launch of Milky Way Lite in the US 12 months ago. It is estimated that the brand recorded sales of $50m (33m) last year – the expectation is that Milky Way Lite will become a $100m (65m) seller in the US.

Initially called Milky Way II, it was given the more descriptive “Lite” tag on launch. The $6.5m (4.2m) advertising did not concentrate on taste but instead showed the bar being broken in half with the line “Bet you can’t tell it’s a Lite”. This was supplemented by sampling and free bar vouchers. The US target group of women, aged between 18 and 34, is the same in the UK. But there are reservations about Mars Light’s ability to make an impact in the UK.

“It is such a mature sector that everybody just takes share from each other,” says one confectionery market source. “There has not been a really innovative launch in this market for years, and the move to a light version of Mars is not a radical step. It might extend the market a little bit but only at the margins.

“The key driver in this sector is indulgence and there is no evidence to suggest that people are expecting those indulgences to be any healthier. Last year Mars was out-marketed for the first time by Cadbury. It is widely thought that Mars will not take that lying down, but where are the big guns to market its way out of the problem?

“Mars Light is a nice little extension but it will not be a panacea – a quantum leap. Cadbury, through slow progress, improved distribution and launches, has done very well in the past two or three years. Mars has not retaliated in any real way,” says a source.

Mars Light is not a retaliatory move. It is an extension. But Mars will need more than that if it is to fight back against an ever more confident Cadbury.

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