ELMHURST, Ill. -- The No. 2 cookie and cracker maker, Keebler Co., is stepping up its counteroffensive in the reduced-fat category with the introduction this week of its Elfin Delights Fat Free Devil's Food Cookies.
The company is also introducing reduced-fat versions of three of its popular brands, Pecan Sandies, Chips Deluxe and Vanilla Wafers, as part of an apparent bid for greater influence in the good-for-you cookie segment.
While Keebler, based here, insists its devil's food product was not conceived as a direct challenge to market-leader Nabisco's popular Snackwell's Devil's Food Cakes, the product similarities and some market rhetoric indicate a devil's food duel may be in the offing.
With the exception of introductory freestanding insert coupons from Keebler, both companies are keeping their trade and consumer marketing plans under tight wraps. Keebler also ran some sampling events in the Chicago area last week.
The battle for fat-conscious consumers' hearts and minds began Aug. 22 with a column by Chicago Tribune marketing columnist George Lazarus comparing the two companies. Three days later, a news story on the front page of USA Today's Life section heralded Keebler's planned introductions. That was
followed two days later by a New York Times business section feature detailing the successes of Nabisco's Snackwell's line. The stories were picked up widely by other newspapers around the country, said sources in the public relations field.
The intensity of the PR blitz only reflects the high stakes being played for, said Roger Adams, Keebler vice president of marketing for cookies and crackers.
According to Adams, the segment of better-for-you cookies and crackers now represents about 15% of the category. Two years ago it was only 2%. "We have looked at it and do see low fat as an important part of our strategy," he said.
For its part, Nabisco publicly takes credit for creating the low-fat cookie and cracker segment. Mark Gutsche, spokesman for Nabisco Biscuit Co., East Hanover, N.J., said Nabisco this year will sell $60 million worth of its Devil's Food Cakes alone. Overall Snackwell's sales should top $400 million.
"Nobody has been able to duplicate our combination of great taste and fat reduction. We are the leader and will remain so in all aspects," he said.
The initial phase of Keebler's rollout begins Sept. 11, with a 40-cent FSI coupon for the Devil's Food Cookies. News America will deliver the 4.4 million copies of the FSI in East-Central and North-Central market areas of the country. Other regions of the country will follow in phases over about a month's time.
"Deliciously Rich. Devilishly Fat Free. And Delightfully Available," reads Keebler's FSI, in an apparent reference to the supply shortages that have plagued Nabisco since it introduced Snackwell's Devil's Food Cakes about two years ago.
For its part, Snackwell has tried its best to turn the shortages of its Devil's Food Cakes into a public relations boon, circulating stories about devoted consumers stalking delivery trucks.
"We will be sharply increasing supply of authentic Snackwell's Devil's Food Cookie Cakes," said Nabisco's Gutsche. "We are already bringing up additional production."
Adams said Keebler plans to drop national FSI coupons behind the introductions of reduced-fat versions of the three other Keebler cookie brands within the next two weeks. Those new items include 25% lower-fat versions of Keebler Pecan Sandies and Chips Deluxe and a 30% lower-fat version of Vanilla Wafers.
Adams would not detail further consumer or trade promotion plans, beyond a reference to a "full complement of marketing support," which will be revealed over time.
A source familiar with Keebler told Brand Marketing that the company had no media advertising plans for its new cookies during the current calendar year. It did hold some sampling events in the Chicago area last week, however. Adams said the Keebler products would generally be priced at 9% to 10% less on a per-pound basis.