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Take a lesson from Heinz: Make the old new

Sunday, March 17, 2002

By Linda A. Dickerson

One thing children across the country and, to some extent, the world love is ketchup.

Heinz managing director Keller squeezes EZ Squirt green ketchup on his fries during a promotional presentation at the Heinz North Side plant in 2000. Since then the company has sold 20 million bottles of the colorful condiment. (Gabor Degre, Post-Gazette)

Over time, Heinz ketchup became a part of children's lives. When salsa developed a sufficient following to pose a serious threat to Heinz's most entrenched product line, the company reached out to the children to secure its brand.

Over a seven-month period, through a series of focus groups, Heinz talked to 1,100 young people about their ketchup preferences. Although these children enjoyed ketchup, Heinz discovered that their younger market wanted the same flavored ketchup but in different colors.

"We felt that it was our responsibility to produce the ketchup that they wanted," said Michael Mullen, Heinz spokesman, explaining the company's recent introduction of EZ Squirt. The EZ Squirt product line satisfies the children's newly articulated desire for colored ketchup, yet with the same taste as the original red ketchup.

 
 

Linda A. Dickerson is a principal in Dickerson & Mangus Ink., an issues consulting firm.

   
 

Michelle Fuscaldo, the Heinz executive in charge of the EZ Squirt line, echoed the finding. "They really like to personalize their ketchup." In Burger King vernacular, today's children truly want to have it their way. Color options allow them to create their own ketchup.

In addition to red, green and purple ketchup choices currently available, Heinz will soon introduce three additional colors, Awesome Orange, Passion Pink and Totally Teal. "We're always trying to do something fun and exciting," said Fuscaldo. The packaging will obscure the color so buyers must guess the color that they're purchasing.

Naturally, the company hopes that children will collect all the colors. So far, sales results are promising. Typically, Heinz sells 300 million bottles of ketchup annually. Since it introduced EZ Squirt in the fall of 2000, the company has sold an additional 20 million bottles.

"We gave them a product that they wanted," said Fuscaldo, crediting the company's early successes to its decision to listen to its customers. "Everyday, we're doing focus groups with different age groups," she said.

Heinz's response to young consumers resulted in EZ Squirt Ketchup in regular red and blasting green varities. (Gabor Degre, Post-Gazette)

Because children between the ages of six and 12 are Heinz ketchup's primary consumers, the company selected this target audience for its extensive focus groups. During the era when Tony O'Reilly served as Heinz's chairman, the company redirected its attention to marketing and innovation. Asking customers directly what they wanted became standard protocol.

Under the new regime, Mullen said, "We are committed to being the most innovative food company. If we don't innovate, we'll just get passed by."

As part of this new approach, "We encourage our brand managers to go out there and take calculated risks." Altering the color of the company's flagship product, ketchup, is one.

In an environment that accepts or celebrates risk-taking, new ideas typically flourish. Even at the request of key customers, tampering with a company's core products is usually extremely difficult. Inertia is a pervasive influence among established brands with historically outstanding sales results. Because of this, EZ Squirt's early successes are particularly impressive.

Faced with the challenge of energizing its mature food lines, Heinz relied on direct customer feedback to shape its product innovations. Children wanted a choice of colors. Adults wanted alternative flavors.

Two months ago, Heinz introduced Ketchup Kick'rs, a line of flavored ketchup to meet its adult customers' changing needs. Soon, the company will announce an organic ketchup, produced without salt, to meet the needs of its increasingly discerning consumers.

This region should learn from Heinz's apparent success.

Nothing, not even Heinz ketchup, is a given any more. Innovation is critical. Change is pervasive. And, listening to customers is key.

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