DENVER (FNS) -- It's too premature to throw traditional marketing techniques at low-carb consumers, who are still navigating the basics of the emerging -- but explosive -- category, a group of panelists said at the two-day Low Carbiz Summit here.
"Many of our potential customers do not even know what the terms 'low carb' and 'reduced carb' mean," said David Martinez, sales and marketing director for Low Carb Success, a Hutto, Texas-based manufacturer/distributor of diet foods.
These descriptive industry terms remain unregulated, even though they're now in wide usage. Industry experts noted that in some cases, the terms mean the same thing; in other instances low carb is listed as having fewer carbohydrates than reduced-carb food items.
"Many consumers are just dying to be instructed in the use of low-carb products," added Mike Myers, president of Low Carb Energy, a consumer magazine covering the diet trend.
The education component is critical for the category's longer-term success, panelists said. To that end, manufacturers must work with retailers to reach consumers coming into stores in search of diet solutions, they said.
"Our job is to teach the public about these products," said Marc Migdal of MIG Consulting, a Charlotte, N.C.-based broker. "They don't even know what they are yet. We must concentrate on teaching clients about these products before we do anything else."
The category's "newness" means that standard promotional tactics like couponing might not work -- not because they would be ineffective, but because they are premature. With an emerging line like low-carb foods, strategies like in-store sampling would be much more effective and have a greater initial impact, panelists said.
Scott Shagin, a New Jersey-based attorney specializing in contracts with FSM Inc., encouraged others to think outside the box.
"We got to where we are now with sampling," he said. "You'll be amazed by how much business you will do. And don't hesitate to take something-out of stock."
Paul Scharfman, president of Specialty Cheese, Lowell, Wis., said another tactic is generating publicity for the products by tapping into the larger issue of diet and health that has captivated U.S. consciousness. "Use aerial bombardment. Go on television to teach customers about the products," he said.
The use of more traditional vehicles, like co-op ads, might work -- but only if they are dropped in connection with retail ads, and only with a 30-day lead time.
"It is foolish not to co-op. There could be marvelous opportunities there," said Scharfman. "We want to work together; so let's do that, getting a co-op program going. That means that independent retailers may contact us, then we contact our brokers, and then it just goes through regular channels."
"We're not selling medicine -- only food," added Migdal. "I sense that customers are looking to find something to make a visible change in life."
Alan Beyda, chief executive officer of J.A.M.B. Enterprises, a low-carb distributor headquartered in Pompano Beach, Fla., said most retailers he has visited realize the important role that brand names have been playing in getting sales off the ground. It is clear, however, "that it is far too early to introduce private label into the situation now. That would only confuse things more. People don't know anything about these new products as it is."
For that reason, packaging is crucial since consumers are looking for some kind of "stand-out" labels or shelf-talkers that highlight low-carb options in grocery aisles, where a majority of retailers seem to be integrating diet-related products with non-diet items. "The decisions all of us make are based on packaging, and it had better not be generic," said Migdal.