Monday, May 14, 2007

Pretty Please With Splenda On It

Late last week, McNeil Nutritionals, makers of Splenda artificial sweetener, settled a lawsuit that Merisant, makers of Equal artificial sweetener, had mounted against them. Merisant had sued McNeil over Splenda's tagline made from sugar so that it tastes like sugar, claiming that that tagline misled consumers into believing that Splenda is somehow more natural and healthier than other sweeteners. Kind of a sugar-without-the-calories rather than some 100% foreign substance, chemistry lab construct. Made from sugar sure sounds sweeter than made from saccharin or aspartame.

(McNeil settled after the jury had asked for a calculator and instructions on how to figure out damages. The settlement amount was not disclosed. Merisant had been asking for $200 million, and, according to one juror, the jury was leaning towards an amount lower than this. Source of this information and other details and quoted material: Associated Press article in the Boston Herald.)

Given Splenda's dominant market share - 60% to Merisant's 14% - the suit has some element of sour grapes to it. But the question remains whether the "lie" that Splenda marketing was telling was a sugar-white lie or a whopper.

While the Splenda end product contains no sugar, "the active ingredient in Splenda starts as pure cane sugar but is chemically altered to create a compound that contains no calories, according to McNeil."

So big lie, little lie, or no lie?

Those of us in marketing say things all the time about our products and our companies.

Sometimes our claims stretch things: We may fancy ourselves "FinalRewards Systems a leading provider of enterprise application software for the emerging virtual funeral parlor industry..." when actually we're a following provider of enterprise apps for said industry, and to date have a whopping 2 customers to our name.

Sometimes our claims sound good but say nothing: "FinalRewards 1.0 is built on a robust platform...." As opposed to a fragile, house of cards architecture that's going to fall apart when we add our next user? 

Sometimes our claims are based purely on our own subjective appreciation of our product: "FinalRewards 1.0 has an intuitive, easy-to-use interface..." when, in fact, most customers might find that the interface is so terrible that they'd just as soon pass on to their own final reward as have to use the product.

Sometimes our claims are fuzzy and hard to prove: "Using FinalRewards may result in significant productivity increases for funeral parlor administrators...." when "significant" could mean 5 minutes over the course of a year (and that's not taking into account the productivity hit you take to get up and running with the application).

But our claims are seldom bold-faced lies. I can't think of one B2B technology marketer who would ever make a false technical statement about their product.

Where would it get you?

It's pretty easy to prove or disprove any technical claim, so why make one that's untrue. All that's going to make you do is look like a liar.

But did McNeil really lie? Or did they just let things lie, knowing that the average label reader would see "made from sugar" and not think about the mad-scientist process that somehow leeched the calories out of that sugar on its way to the little yellow Splenda packet.

"I don’t think the company necessarily set out to mislead, but I don’t think they did anything to stop it," said [juror Barbara] Helms, a vice president at a Philadelphia advertising firm.

Did people start using Splenda because they thought it was more natural, or were they just sucked in by the high production values of the ads? Do Splenda users believe they're getting "real sugar", or did they switch to Splenda because they figured a next-generation product was bound to be better?

Sixty percent market share.

How often does that happen?

Sixty percent market share means an awful lot of people are using this product. (Disclosure: I'm one of them.) Were we all duped by misleading marketing, or is it possible that the product - whether it's directly, or indirectly, or not-at-all made from sugar - actually is better?

For whatever reason, McNeil refused to add a statement to their boxes that said that Splenda doesn't actually contain sugar, which does kind of suggest that they were looking to mislead consumers. I don't imagine that such a statement would have vastly cut into their market share, although clearly it would have been something their competitors could have pointed to.

Meanwhile, McNeil is dealing with another law suit, this one from sugar producers.

Just goes to show ya the problems that marketers can find themselves in when they sugar coat the truth.

1 comment:

Mark Cahill said...

The last bastion of a doomed market strategy - lawsuits.

Did it occur to them that they're getting spanked in the market because their product tastes bad?