Brand death

I have noticed in recent months that several household and food products I enjoy have disappeared from shelves. Sometimes the transition is easy—for example, switching from Tide Ready-Tabs back to plain old laundry detergent—other times, less so (you try finding a paste-and-gel fresh-mint toothpaste without whitening that you and your spouse both like).

Obviously, market forces create the shifts; my beloved Turkey Hill low-fat choco mint chip ice cream has ceded shelf space to low-carb mint chip instead. That doesn’t make it easier, though. As an ordinary consumer, I like what I buy, and I’m confused and disappointed when I can’t buy it. Companies don’t announce discontinuations; instead, one day consumers can’t find the product in the corner store, which leads to an increased neighborhood scouring, then a touch of hoarding as the realization sets in that this could be a last gasp to buy.

The problem is that in an age of increased brand segmentation, the expectations of simpler product worlds still persist. You like Coca-Cola, you buy Coca-Cola, simple as that. New Coke failed not because it was an inferior product but because it pulled the rug out from the expectation level of a vast array of demanding consumers. Now that toothpaste comes in 59 varieties, each one a little more suspect than the next (citrus whitening toothpaste with built-in mouthwash?), product turnover becomes more of an everyday occurrence. Yet the overarching brand continues, leaving consumers confused: do you switch to another tube of Crest, or change allegiances entirely?

Companies need to keep an eye on product discontinuations as much as introductions, for each dead product has an allegiance pining for it. Perhaps I would have benefited, for example, from getting free samples of replacement products along with the toothpaste I used to buy. Create a transition so the consumer realizes that there is a suitable replacement to the soon-to-depart. Higher marketing and production costs, sure, but higher customer satisfaction and loyalty, too. (Consider: I don’t buy Turkey Hill ice cream now that my favorite flavor is gone.)

I am more old-school than I thought, because I miss my discontinued products, right down to the Arizona diet asia plum green tea that I knew from Day One was too niche to spend much time in the corner deli. But that doesn’t make me wrong as a consumer. Just a little more wary as I settle into new habits. And I am probably just one of a sizable segment of shoppers who would benefit from a savvy marketing department that made product transitions easier.