They arrived in time for the new year. Today, they stand before the newly resolute legions of diet-conscious Americans promising to manage their weight.
What are they? New labels, on-pack starburst graphics and aisle banners -- all proclaiming a new era of healthier options, and dressing up a host of consumer packaged goods. The question both manufacturers and retailers are asking is whether this massive rollout will be enough to change sales patterns that increasingly reflect the blame consumers are placing on CPG products for causing their poor health.
PepsiCo launched a national promotion in January for its Smart Spot-labeled products, numbering more than 100, across several of its brands, including Baked! Lay's from Frito-Lay, and certain Pepsi and Gatorade products.
In addition to in-store displays, the national promotion includes an educational brochure on products and features Meredith Vieira, co-host of ABC-TV's "The View," who is also the lead face for PepsiCo's Smart Spot Internet sweepstakes.
Kraft Foods launched its "Sensible Solution" labeling program early this year, flagging products that have reduced or no fat, and reduced calories, saturated fat, sugar and sodium, including Post Shredded Wheat cereal; Triscuit Original baked, whole-grain wheat crackers; and Kraft 2% Shredded Reduced Fat Cheese.
Other products featuring the Sensible Solutions label provide "beneficial nutrients," such as protein, calcium, fiber and whole grains.
Cereal manufacturers General Mills and Kellogg have also boarded the better-for-you bandwagon, with the former announcing last year that all its cereals would be made from whole grains, and the latter reducing the sugar in kids' cereals by about one-third.
Many supermarket chains and industry observers said identifying "healthier" foods is a good move. It shows an industry responding to consumer demand, and many believe it shows the larger role the food industry will play in promoting good health in the future.
"The companies are headed in the right direction. The more informed customers are at the grocery store, the more healthful their family food choices will be," said Lori Willis, director of communications for Schnuck Markets, St. Louis.
"As customers continue to strive to live healthier lifestyles and provide healthier food alternatives to their families, the industry will continue to experience demand for products that are positioned as being more nutritional or a healthier option," said Cathy Shifflett, director of edible grocery at Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh.
CPG companies acknowledged that they have an important role to play in helping consumers lead healthier lifestyles. What must be determined is how far product innovation will be driven by consumer demand. For example, right now many food manufacturers are looking at ways to deliver products with less fat, sodium and sugar, all at the top of consumer concern lists.
"We're trying to be very proactive in that area. That's what consumers are demanding, and where things are headed," said Aurora Gonzalez, director of health and wellness public relations, PepsiCo.
Meanwhile, retailers may think better-for-you labels are good for business, but they still have to determine how best to market them.
For example, Salisbury, N.C.-based Food Lion, a subsidiary of Delhaize America, is not merchandising "Smart Spot" or other specially labeled products differently than their conventional counterparts. In stores, there is no segmenting them in displays or endcaps, or drawing attention to them with point-of-purchase signs.
"There's been no support materials beyond the information found on the packages," said Jeff Lowrance, the retailer's spokesman.
However, some supermarket chains are actively marketing better-for-you products. H.E. Butt Grocery, Winn-Dixie Stores, Stop & Shop and Albertsons, among others, heavily promoted Smart Spot products for PepsiCo's national promotion.
Kroger sent a direct-mail piece on Smart Spot products to 1.1 million of its loyalty card members who already buy "healthy" foods. "Instead of dropping a huge mailing, it's very targeted," said Bernie Tuttle, customer marketing manager, PepsiCo.
Grocers are also successfully co-marketing the better-for-you foods with some general merchandise items. To promote getting back into shape at the start of this year, Detroit-based Meijer promoted athletic wear alongside displays of Pepsi, Baked! Lay's and other Smart Spot products. Other retailers teamed Smart Spot products with yoga balls, Tuttle said.
The degree to which newer products are promoted should also influence sales down the road. Neil Stern, partner in the retail consulting firm McMillan/Doolittle, Chicago, said retailers that build introductory, single-themed displays of better-for-you products will only help sales, especially when the products and the promotions are new.
For example, Frito-Lay's colored displays -- in which Baked! Lay's and other Smart Spot products are grouped together -- "help the consumer find the products more easily," Stern said.
Differentiating these products as more healthful is a smart merchandising tool, whether the foods are labeled "organic," "natural" or "light," or are classified as similarly healthful, Stern added.
"Retailers in January have gone out of their way to feature healthier, light, diet products and created displays to do it," Stern said. While many of these specialized food displays were built around New Year's resolutions and losing weight, Stern said many chains will continue differentiating the specially marked products throughout the year because "there is so much interest in these products."
To that end, Giant Eagle featured Smart Spot products in a recent weekly circular, and has run front-page ads in its circular on lower-sugar cereals for Kellogg and General Mills. One circular explained the Smart Spot program in more detail. However, Giant Eagle does not believe further consumer education is needed for cereals that are lower in sugar.
"Since the packages clearly state 33% less sugar or 75% less sugar, there was less need for further promotional support. We are not planning for further in-store signage," Shifflett said.
Shifflett's views seem to echo those of other retailers, who are not promoting these better-for-you products on a regular basis, and are unsure whether sales of the items improve once they're labeled.
"With respect to customer response and impact on sales, it is really too early to draw hard correlations," Shifflett said.
Food Lion executives have similar views. "It's still probably a little too early to gauge the success and impact of these products. We haven't received customer feedback. Individual items have sold well, while others haven't," Lowrance said.
"We have not noticed any significant fluctuations in the sale of these specially marked products," Willis said.
While retailers may not be tracking sales lifts of better-for-you products, PepsiCo found that between Smart Spot and regular products, the green-dotted Smart Spot items moved off shelves quicker when both were available to consumers.