When the wheel’s broken, mend it

One of the biggest dilemmas facing marketers is deciding when the wheel becomes broken enough to warrant repairing it. Any fool can see that a hairline crack in a spoke needs some kind of remedial action. The fine judgement is in determining how radical the repair ought to be, and at what point others should be made aware of a hitherto invisible problem in the brand-wagon’s running gear.

The bigger the brand, the bigger the dilemma and the smaller the margin for error. Such is the problem facing Mars and Coca-Cola, both of which are embarking on apparently minor changes that could have profound consequences if they go wrong. Both are prepared to take the gamble, because their core products are gradually losing allure.

It might seem absurd that Coke is so coy about its proposals for the launch of what is, by normal standards, such a minor brand extension as a vanilla-flavoured cola. But Coke’s experience in this area is anything but normal. For many years, it was taboo to tamper with the main brand. In 1985, when Atlanta finally succumbed to the temptation under competitive pressure, it got badly burned with Cherry Coke; an experience only eclipsed by the world-famous New Coke disaster that same year. Declining consumption of cola in its key markets – in other words, fear – is what is driving Coke to experiment. Even so, it has been slow to react. Diversification across the flavoured-carbonates market, such as lemon, orange and energy drinks, has been powered by Pepsi. PepsiCo has also been first into the flavoured cola sector – with Pepsi Twist – although it is understood Coke will try to pre-empt Pepsi in the UK with a Diet Coke lemon variant.

Mars – or Masterfoods as it now, significantly, prefers to be known – has been similarly cautious in facing up to decline in its core product, but its reaction is arguably more radical – and more risky. While it has strenuously denied any change to the Mars Bar recipe, just about everything else – positioning, packaging, slogan and even weight – has been given the heave-ho. The newly feminised Mars Bar is clearly trying to face some home truths about a changing market. Masterfoods believes that the bar’s traditional appeal to youngish males is not only outmoded but also increasingly alienating to the 40 per cent of its consumers who are women. By bridging the gender gap, with a softer, more indulgent message such as ‘Pleasure you can’t measure’, it could conquer a larger share of an increasingly empowered sector without sacrificing the traditional male scoffer.

But those are two risky and debatable premises. The provocative ‘macho’ relaunch of Yorkie suggests there is still strength in that traditional male appeal. The Yorkie message may be couched in parody, but the intention is deadly serious – and could succeed in attracting a number of disaffected Mars Bar consumers. More generally, tilting a product with universal appeal too far to one end of the gender spectrum holds obvious dangers. Only forthcoming market share figures will tell us who has got it right.

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