PEOPLE'S CHOICE

Consumer packaged goods marketers are doing much more than simply getting consumers' stamp of approval on a product launch. They're actually letting the public select what the product will be -- right down to the color, shape and flavor.Take Kraft Foods' confection division, which is refreshing the flavor combination of its Life Savers candy roll. Rather than using some of the more traditional methods

Consumer packaged goods marketers are doing much more than simply getting consumers' stamp of approval on a product launch. They're actually letting the public select what the product will be -- right down to the color, shape and flavor.

Take Kraft Foods' confection division, which is refreshing the flavor combination of its Life Savers candy roll. Rather than using some of the more traditional methods to make the decision, it's letting the public decide what the new flavors will be.

In a promotion called "It's Your Roll To Vote," Life Savers is calling on consumers to decide which five flavors should be in the roll. Consumers can vote online at candystand.com, a multi-brand Web site for Kraft's confection division, East Hanover, N.J. "We've put the choice in the hands of the voting public, and are encouraging Life Savers' fans to make their opinions known," said Mark Sapir, senior brand manager, Life Savers.

Kraft is not alone. More and more marketers are giving consumers a greater role in the decision-making process when it comes to product launches.

Some companies are using official online and off-line polls. Others are taking an informal approach by more carefully monitoring comments from company e-mails, Web sites and customer-service phone lines.

Regardless of which approach is used, the strategy can help marketers determine the public's affinity for a new product flavor, color or shape.

In Kraft's "It's Your Roll To Vote" campaign, consumers can actually shape the future of the Life Savers roll, which currently consists of cherry, orange, lemon, lime and pineapple. Voters can select five of 11 flavors. Along with the incumbents, they include green apple, watermelon, raspberry, mango melon, tangerine and blackberry. Polls were open from February through last month. A winner is expected to be announced soon.

"Life Savers candy is an icon, and we did not want to make this important decision alone," Sapir said.

Other marketers are equally as interested in placing the task of product development into the hands of the consumer. And some are going to great lengths to do it. Last year, for instance, Masterfoods USA, Hackettstown, N.J., a Mars Inc. company, let consumers around the world determine the newest color of M&M's chocolate candies. Purple won over aqua and pink with 41% of the vote.

"The world has made it clear what color it wants to see in the M&M's bags," Paul Michaels, president of Masterfoods USA, said in a prepared statement.

Called "The M&Ms Global Color Vote," the promotion was the largest in the 61-year history of the M&M's brand. Voters in more than 200 countries voted on mms.com, which is accessible in 15 different languages. Votes were also cast by mail, telephone and at kiosks placed in select locations.

HEINZ'S STELLAR BLUE AND MORE

Along with confections, consumers have also been asked to voice their opinions about other types of consumer packaged goods. H.J. Heinz Co., Pittsburgh, for instance, has put consumers into the driver's seat when it comes to the expansion of its EZ Squirt line of colored ketchup. Based on consumer input, Stellar Blue was just chosen to join Red, Blastin' Green and Funky Purple. Only about 500,000 bottles were produced, so the color will be available for a limited time.

Stellar Blue was selected because it was the most-requested condiment color that Heinz has yet to produce, according to Heinz.

"Blue has been the No. 1 request from kids for some time now," said Michelle Fuscaldo, brand manager, EZ Squirt.

Although there was no official voting process, Heinz carefully evaluated comments from e-mails, Web sites like ezsquirt.com and heinz.com, and its 1-800 number, according to Robin Teets, company spokesman.

Consumers have also been instrumental in packaging innovations at Heinz. One example is last year's introduction of Heinz Easy Squeeze, an upside-down ketchup bottle.

"Talking to consumers, we found that they frequently turned the bottle upside down in their refrigerators," Teets noted.

The process behind EZ Squirt and Easy Squeeze signifies a shift at Heinz to get more consumer involvement in new product launches and extensions, said Teets.

While marketing, research and development are critical to the brand development process, so is public input. More and more, CPG firms are moving beyond focus groups to more in-depth consumer involvement, said Stuart Armstrong, vice president, new business development, Euro RSCG Meridian, Westport, Conn., a management consulting firm.

"Originally, marketers would conduct focus groups to validate a certain hypothesis that they already had, as opposed to seeking out completely new ideas," he said.

One reason for the shift is heightened competition in the CPG and food retailing industries.

By talking to consumers on a consistent basis, Heinz can create products that are more closely aligned with consumer needs, said Teets, who agreed that "there's more of a need to distinguish yourself in the marketplace."

Along with competition, another driving force is the growing ethnic diversity among today's shoppers. This has increased the need for developing the right product for the right consumer at the right place, Armstrong said.

"Consumers can help marketers articulate voids that may exist in the product mix," he said.

While some marketers are using consumer polls/votes/contests for long-term product launches, others are leveraging them for promotional products or products with a limited life span.

For instance, Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream, Oakland, Calif., has kicked off a kids' consumer contest to choose a new ice cream flavor.

In celebration of its 75th birthday, Dreyer's has invited youngsters between the ages of 8 and 14 to enter a contest called "A Scoop of the U.S.A." To qualify, kids need to create a flavor that pays tribute to their home states.

Dreyer's markets products under the Dreyer's brand name throughout the Western states and Texas, and under the Edy's name throughout the remainder of the country. The company is in the midst of a planned $2.5 billion takeover by Nestle.

Fifteen finalists from across the United States will be invited to a "taste-off" at the Dreyer's ice cream factory, where they will create their one-of-a-kind flavors for a panel of judges. Dreyer's will select one winning flavor and produce a limited run of the creation. Youngsters can enter through mid-September.

"We are inviting some of our biggest ice cream fans to show off their own flavor creations," said John Harrison, Dreyer's official ice cream "taster."

This is not the first time Dreyer's has involved its consumers in the decision-making process. Consumers have helped create about six Dreyer's flavors over the years, Harrison said.

Most recently, a Gurnee, Ill., resident was selected as the grand-prize winner in Dreyer's Homemade "Traditions in the Kitchen" ice cream flavor con

test. Parsons' creation, "Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice," debuted in the freezer aisles nationwide as one of Dreyer's Homemade flavors.

KIDS' CREATIONS

Consumer involvement has taught Dreyer's a lot about ice cream preferences, Harrison told SN. While vanilla and chocolate are essential to the product lineup, consumers have voiced strong demand for added ingredients, including cookies and candy. Based on consumer input, Dreyer's launched a flavor called French Vanilla Fudge Pie.

"We've learned that people like 'stuff' in their ice cream," Harrison said.

Consumer-based flavors at Dreyer's are common in that they are marketable and appeal to a broad spectrum of consumers, said Harrison. While they may not be the top-selling ice cream flavor, each has performed well, he said.

Consumer involvement in product launches is especially prominent in the kids' market, said Michelle Schaefer, senior planner, KidLeo, the kid consultancy at marketing firm Leo Burnett, Chicago.

"This type of involvement is hugely empowering for kids. It makes them feel independent," Schaefer told SN.

Because today's kids are so business savvy, they will respond to brands to which they feel a connection.

"Kids want to be involved in a brand," Schaefer said.

KidLeo is working with the Kellogg Co., Battle Creek, Mich., for two consumer-based new products. One involves the company's Apple Jacks cereal brand. Consumers can choose a new shape for Apple Jacks (the flavor will remain the same). The choices are Blue Carrots, Brown Bananas and Orange Discs. Youngsters are also being asked, what, if anything, they would do to change future boxes of Apple Jacks.

Kellogg also wants public input on a new color for its Froot Loops cereal. At toucansam.com, kids can choose among Guava Green, Ruby Red or Rainbow.

Besides their involvement on product development, consumers are becoming a part of the brand itself. Take "Brawny Man," for example.

Claire Rosenzweig, the Promotion Marketing Association president, points to Atlanta-based Georgia-Pacific Corp.'s "Do You Know a Brawny Man?" -- a campaign aimed at revitalizing and modernizing the Brawny brand. Created by DVC Worldwide, the promotion won the PMA's 2003 Super Reggie Award, signifying the best in promotion marketing.

The Brawny campaign invited consumers to nominate a man who represented the "Brawny Man" image -- rugged good looks, physical strength, strength of character, toughness, dependability and all-American clean-cut values.

More than 4,000 men from across the United States were nominated with photos and essays. The winner was a Los Angeles firefighter. He and his wife, who nominated him, each received 2003 Dodge Durango SUVs. In addition, his face appeared on Brawny paper-towel packages for about six weeks earlier this year.