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A Little Secret Exposed


4/12/2007
By Jon S. Owens

Fido and Fluffy don’t really care who makes their food and the fact that various brands come from the same manufacturer never mattered much — until now.
 

AdAge recently ran an article on the national pet-food recall with the title, “Recall Sheds Light on Pet-Food Industry’s Little Secret.” Below that headline appeared this subtitle, “Consumers See That Premium and Private Label Products Can Come from the Same Source.” Sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it?

You can bet there are some anxious marketing executives trying to figure out how to minimize the impact of this horrible publicity. You can also imagine the considerable time and resources that will be expended to curb the bad publicity, and minimize consumer fallout. And let’s not forget the impending legal fees our lawyer friends will reap as angry pet owners seek revenge through our nation’s courts.

Single-source manufacturing of multiple brands is nothing new, and is a common practice employed daily by a multitude of automotive parts manufacturers. This type of manufacturing “rationalization” is a necessary strategy in a world of compounding SKU proliferation that shows no sign of slowing. Thus, differentiating “premium” brands and/or superior performing products from “private label” brands and/or lower performing products is a challenge at every level of our industry. How to differentiate one “brand” (or, price level) from another is something that must be continuously scrutinized and considered.

Branding in today’s aftermarket is much more difficult than ever before. The ability to differentiate one brand from another, when the products inside the boxes may have been made in the same factory, on the same production line, with the same tooling, to the exact same specifications may be an unattainable goal. Nevertheless, striving for even the slightest differentiating feature or benefit must always be at the forefront of our industry’s marketing experts. The battle to resist becoming a commodity — the dreaded “C” word — must be the top priority of every “C” level executive in our industry. If not, our brands (and, worse yet, our products) risk being watered down to the lowest level of acceptable performance, at which only price is left to differentiate.

In the sad reality of the pet-food recall, no amount of information, communication or marketing can overcome such a grave quality-control mistake. Thus, those companies and their brands are now “exposed,” and the financial ramifications for them will be devastating. Prior to that manufacturing problem, the pet-food industry’s marketers were able to successfully differentiate their products and brands and create the perception of a wide variety of product categories at various price points, yielding a vast array of consumer choices, and ultimately a high level of consumer satisfaction and trust. Can the same be said for the products and brands offered in our industry?

There are some lessons to be learned from the misfortunes and mistakes of the pet food industry. One, successful branding pays off by enabling companies to position products at various price and profit points, thus delivering consumer choice and satisfaction, and two, when the brand “promise” is compromised (in this case due to poor quality control at the manufacturing level) in any way, at any price/profit level, the associated costs and customer fallout can be damaging beyond repair.
The final lesson is: Invest in your brands while never compromising your manufacturing and quality processes. That’s easier said than done, I’m sure.















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