The Hub Cool News

P&G Gain-iacs

gain detergent

Procter & Gamble is answering the classic question as to whether anybody would really want to have a “relationship” with a jug of laundry detergent … and the answer, apparently, is “yes,” as reported by Ellen Byron in The Wall Street Journal (9/4/07). “It’s about understanding those consumers who are very important to you, and getting into the mindset that it’s all about creating a relationship with them,” says P&G’s chief marketing officer, Jim Stengel, about the success of Gain brand laundry detergent. As of 2006, Gain’s share of the “$6.6 billion laundry-detegent market in the U.S.” was 10 percent, “up from 7 percent since 2001.” It is now the “No. 2 brand behind Tide,” which commands 44 percent of the market.

That puts Gain’s annual sales at more than $1 billion, making it one of just 22 P&G brands at that level. Gain got there largely by emphasizing its fragrance rather than its cleaning ability, which, of course, is what Tide is known for. The thinking was that “a fragrant detergent would draw the growing Hispanic population in the U.S.” This “niche” approach was a departure for P&G, which generally builds success on mass appeal. “But with Gain, just 16 percent of users account for 88 percent of sales volume.” The approach also means that “Gain spends relatively little on advertising: just $12 million in 2005, compared with $65 million for Tide.”

Most of that advertising shows up on “cable channels delivering significant Hispanic and African-American viewers,” although the spots themselves do not make an overtly ethnic pitch. Instead, the emphasis is on the fragrances, which include Apple Mango Tango, and packaging which “looks like a woman with her hand on her hip,” says P&G’s Scott Muatz. The ads “take a playful, often spicy tone, illustrating the delirium great-smelling laundry can bring.” Gain recently line-extended with Gain Joyful Expressions, which P&G’s Kevin Burke says is intended to intensify the appeal: “We deliberately made it more intense, more polarizing … That’s how we got deeper in love with an even narrower group of consumers.” Or, as P&G likes to call them, Gain-iacs. ~ Tim Manners, editor

Package Pop

evian palace bottle

Shorter attention spans — especially among younger people — is leading to more frequent changes in package design, reports Louise Story in The New York Times (8/10/07). “They say, ‘What else do you have for me? That was nice last year, but I want the packaging to be refreshing,'” says Kimberly Drosos, director of package development for Unilever, which, among other things, is packaging up its Axe shower gel in bottles that look like joysticks. Pepsi, meanwhile, “is experimenting with the designs on its Mountain Dew bottles, selling aluminum bottles covered in graffiti-like design that will be changed 12 times from May to October.”

A decade ago, package designs lasted an average of about seven years, according to some experts, but now that cycle is down to about two years. The rise of the internet and the decline of traditional television is another driver of this trend. “The media are fragmented, and we can’t find people — we can’t get them to sit down and listen to our argument on a television commercial,” says Jerry Kathman of LPK, an agency. Most important, a package makes its argument when shoppers are deciding what to buy. This has some marketers considering the possibility of putting “a computer chip and a tiny speaker inside a package … So a package of cheese could say, ‘I go well with Triscuit crackers,’ when a shopper takes it off the shelf.”

Or maybe just, “Hey, stupid!” Other drivers of this new-package proliferation include the desire to “shrink container sizes to reduce their environmental impact” or better align with changing consumer lifestyles — “Orbit now sells gum in a bottle made to fit in a car’s cup holder.” Then there are brands aiming to create packages so beautiful that people will consider them to be a part of their home decor. Kleenex now comes in oval packages and Evian has introduced a new “palace bottle” featuring “an elegant swanlike neck.” Kimberly-Clark’s Becky Walter says such innovations give consumers a quick and inexpensive way to decorate their homes. “It’s not like they have to go out and purchase new furniture,” she says. ~ Tim Manners, editor

Tactile Tactics

alli

The most overlooked sense in marketing is the sense of touch, reports Andy Johnson in CTV.ca News (8/4/07). Not that there’s anything new about it: “In fact, the iconic Coca-Cola bottle is one of the earliest examples of a product that came in a package so unique it could be identified by feel alone, even buried in a cooler full of ice and other bottled beverages … The new MacBook Pro laptop is even cooler to the touch than its competitors, possibly reinforcing a subconscious link between the product and the user’s concept of ‘cool,'” according to consultant Duncan Berry of Applied-Iconography. And of course the iPod certainly passes any blindfolded test versus other Mp3 players, too.

More recent and less well-known, perhaps, is the packaging for GlaxoSmithKline’s Alli, the fat-blocking pill: “The drug comes with a reinvented pillbox called a ‘shuttle’ that carries the medication. It has a unique shape, can be opened with one hand and is made with soft rubber and careful texturing that is pleasing to the touch.” Duncan Berry comments: “It’s almost like you’re grabbing the hand of a friend, almost a clasp, that’s a very subtle but direct connection to the idea of someone who’s going along this journey with you — a friend and an ally.” Martin Lindstrom, author of “Brand Sense,” says such tactile opportunities are for the taking: “In fact,” he says, “83 percent of all the communication you and I are exposed to every day is only appealing to the sense of sight.”

Martin also thinks tactile branding is the next big thing, saying, “I know from studies we conducted recently that 35 percent of the largest brands in the world — so the first 100 brands — right now are working on a sensory branding strategy.” He adds that tactile tactics work because humans are “hard-wired” to judge people and things based on the way they feel, a habit that started with the handshake “as a way of assessing an enemy’s strength of ensuring they were unarmed.” Perhaps most important, the sense of touch “has the ability to transcend borders, languages and cultures.” Randall Frost, author of “The Globalization of Trade” suggests that touch has the potential to be “the lingua franca of global branding.” ~ Tim Manners, editor

Dilmah Tea

dilmah tea

Lagging far behind Unilever’s Lipton brand in the global marketplace, Sri Lanka’s Dilmah Tea is leading Lipton and everyone else in innovation, reports Eric Ellis in Fortune (7/23/07). Dilmah isn’t exactly tiny — with $500 million in sales in 93 countries — it is actually tied with Tetley for third place, behind Twinings. But its creativity in a niche known as "curiosity teas" seems to be catching on. For Dilmah’s customers, the curiosity is tea that’s positioned like "fine wine. Its elegant packaging is heavy with wine iconography: descriptive labels equating a robust black tea to a shiraz, or a fine white leaf to champagne." Predictably, Dilmah’s rivals scoff.

"The wine analogy is fairly ridiculous in big wine-drinking countries which also tend to be tea drinkers," says John Cornish of Twinings. Perhaps that’s why Dilmah is eyeing ostensibly unlikely locales — Poland, Belarus and Kazakhstan, for example — as it expands its chain of T-Bars, "chic and trendy outlets targeting the Buddha Bar set." Dilmah has already opened some 65 T-Bars and is planning to have about 200 by 2015 (the first U.S. T-Bar is coming to San Diego in September). But Dilhan Fernando — who runs Dilmah with his brother, Malik — says the real Dilmah difference is the quality of tea itself , which he says translates into profit margins some 40 percent higher than those of his competitors.

"I’ve stayed true to the leaf because I believe in its quality, and not in its mass-market commoditization." says Dilhan "You have to regard tea in the same way you would an immaculate vintage … People need to know what they’re drinking." Unlike other teas, which mix leaves from various countries, Dilmah’s teas are from a single source. That source is Sri Lanka, which is perhaps more associated with civil war and poverty than tea. That’s why Dilmah positions itself as "Ceylon" tea, which is Sri Lanka’s colonial-era name. Dilmah is also "unusual in the tea industry in being a vertically integrated operation — producer, packager and marketer." It all adds up to a company that "has doubled in size since 2000, averaging annual 15 percent growth in revenue and profit. ~ Tim Manners, editor

Nottingham-Spirk

Chances are you’ve never heard of Nottingham-Spirk, the industrial-design firm whose creations include the Crest SpinBrush, the Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner and the ever-popular Sherwin-Williams twist-and-pour paint can, reports Anne Fischer in Fortune (6/11/07). In fact, over the past 30 years, Nottingham-Spirk has “patented 464 products, with combined sales of more than $30 billion.” What’s their secret? Craig Saunders, who has been with the firm for 24 years, “says he’s gotten the most useful insights from focus groups by asking them what makes them mad.” That’s how Nottingham-Spirk came up with the SwifferVac, for instance. People said they “loved the Swiffer mop” but were frustrated by its inability to clean up anything other than dust.

“So if you spilled cereal or dry dog food or jellybeans on the floor you had to go get out the vacuum cleaner,” says Craig. “People really hated that.” Another favorite research technique is simply to walk the aisles at Wal-Mart, and, as co-founder John Spirk says, “looking for what’s not there.” That’s how Nottingham-Spirk came up with the idea for the blockbuster Crest SpinBrush — just noticing how expensive electric toothbrushes were, how they were locked up in cases, and thinking how great it would be if you could just grab one for five bucks from the regular old, manual toothbrush rack and toss it in your shopping cart.

Nottingham-Spirk vets such ideas in meetings of 8-10 designers, who rate them as either “wow”, “nice” or “who cares?” You need “wows” all around to get to the next stage. That’s another Nottingham-Spirk hallmark — it actually engineers and markets what it dreams up. “Coming up with a great concept is wonderful, but it has to be workable,” says Craig. “We don’t necessarily set out to win design awards. Our goal is to help our clients make money.” It’s a mission that began in the firm’s earliest days, when it helped a company called Rotadyne realize that its rotation-molding machinery could be making toys instead of bedpans. At the time, Rotadyne had revenues of $1 million. As of 2005, the company, now called Little Tikes, makers of the Cozy Coupe, “reported revenues of $250 million.” ~ Tim Manners, editor

Carbon Labels

Tesco, Timberland and Stonyfield Farm are leading the way toward eco-labeling on the products they sell, reports Amy Cortese in The New York Times (3/7/07). Tesco ceo Sir Terry Leahy “has proposed labeling products to reflect their carbon footprint, starting with tens of thousands of Tesco-branded food and clothing products” (more information here). Timberland ceo Jeffrey B. Swartz is championing a “nutrition label” for its footwear, “detailing the energy used in making the shoes, the portion that is renewable, and the factory’s labor record.”

Gary Hirschberg, ceo of Stonyfield Farm, “is expected to announce that Climate Counts, a nonprofit group it helped found, will independently evaluate leading consumer-products companies’ efforts to manage their climate effect. The idea is to create a metric that will allow consumers to compare, say, McDonald’s and Burger King.” That’s not easily done, of course. “We found that our supply chain goes farther than we imagined,” says Jeffrey Swartz of Timberland. “The vast majority of our carbon footprint comes before we even make the shoe.”

Indeed, "more than half of the energy used (and greenhouse gases generated) in making a pair of shoes comes from processing and producing the raw materials. The next-biggest energy drain is the retail environment … followed by factory operations and, finally, transportation" Timberland actually makes "hundreds of calculations" of its "footprint" and has developed "green index tags" that evaluate each item across "a range of issues." Consumers do say that they’d sooner buy "socially responsible products," but questions remains whether eco-labels will change consumer behavior "any more than nutrition labels stop people from eating junk food." ~ Tim Manners, editor

Charles & Rothschilds

prince charles rothschild

Prince Charles is joining Marc Chagall, Robert Motherwell, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso among the artists who have created labels for Chateau Mouton Rothschild, reports James Barron in The New York Times (2/24/07). Charles was invited to submit one of his paintings by Baroness Philippine de Rothschild because, as she put it, he’s a “subtle, civilized man,” and besides, she says, “I’m fond of him.” The baroness said she first extended the invitation to the prince in 2004, but it wasn’t until 2005 that he gave her one of his pieces.

As the Baroness recounts it: “He said, ‘Let me send you one of my awful watercolors.’ They arrived. They weren’t awful.” The watercolor shows “pine trees in the south of France” (label here) and will go “on the 2004 vintage.” His artwork joins a line of labels “dating to 1945, when the baroness’s father, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, began commissioning artists to do little paintings that look as good on labels.”

The one exception to that rule was Andy Warhol, who ignored the directive that the painting had to be horizontal, and so his painting had to be flipped on its side. “His label was not half as nice as his original painting," says the baroness, who has been "seeking out artists" since her father died, back in 1988. As with all of the other artists, Prince Charles won’t be paid: "He gets some bottles of wine. That’s the deal," says the baroness, adding, "The wine is art … I lived with a father who said making wine is an art. There is no dichotomy. Wine is art and art is wine." ~ Tim Manners, editor

Pink Champagne

Interest in “all things pink” and a perception that rose wine is “young and extroverted” is propelling a growing market for nonvintage rose champagne, reports Sarah Nassauer in The Wall Street Journal (2/15/07). This trend, which “most producers believe … is a structure shift, not just a trend” — a new category, in fact — is being promoted most notably by Moet & Chandon, which made a decision that pink champagne made sense about six years ago. Part of their thinking was pure economics. It’s less expensive to produce a bottle of nonvintage rose champagne than nonvintage white champagne (nonvintage wines mix “grapes from different harvests”). The margins on the pink stuff are also better, with bottles of nonvintage rose priced “15 percent to 20 percent higher than a bottle of nonvintage white champagne.”

That’s not to say the move into rose champagne wasn’t risky for Moet & Chandon. Their decision meant “transferring valuable grapes to rose production years before any actual sales while the bottles aged.” They couldn’t just plant more grapes because of “a 1927 French law, aimed at maintaining quality, that fixed France’s Champagne region at about 84,000 acres, most of which is already planted.” But Moet figured if they got the marketing right, they should have a hit on their hands. The marketing began with “rose-petal covered Valentine’s Day ads in glossy magazines and special packaging in the late 1990s.” But the real focus has been the fashion industry. For three years running, Moet & Chandon has hosted the Moet Rose Lounge in New York’s Bryant Park during fashion week.

The events cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars” but when Paris Sheraton‘s publicist calls and asks for a VIP pass, Moet assumes it’s getting the right kind of buzz. Next up are Moet Rose "picnic bags, complete with magnums of Rose Imperial. Only 10 will be available for sale in the U.S., priced at $1,500 apiece." Other champagne houses balk at that kind of marketing, but Moet brand manager Franklin D. Isacson says it’s what’s required: "They’re so jaded," he says of the fashion crowd, "We have to do something to stand out." So far, so good: "For decades, rose’s share of the French champagne export market hovered around two percent to three percent. But since 2000, rose champagne’s share has climbed to more than seven percent, with exports soaring 37 percent in the first nine months of 2006," versus a year ago. ~ Tim Manners, editor

Selling Organic

natural cheetos

“If the package does its work, then the food inside doesn’t actually have to be organic, only organic-ish,” writes Kim Severson in The New York Times (1/3/07). Kim is talking about cuses such as "Chester Cheetah rising gently from a farm field bathed in golden sunlight." That’s how Chester appears on the bag of "natural” Cheetos. “From there,” she adds, “it’s only a matter of time before Cap’n Crunch shows up in a hemp jacket, raising money to save the manatees.” That’s because “a cause is important,” even if “the actual health benefits of a product” really aren’t. Buy a box of Koala Krisp, for instance, and “one percent of sales will be spent saving endangered species.”

That concept actually dates back at least to the 1970s, when “Mo Siegel began selling Celestial Seasonings tea in boxes with sleepy bears. Tom and Kate Chappell gave up the corporate life to create Tom’s of Maine toothpaste. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield sold ice cream in Vermont using goofy, hand-lettered graphics to tell their story.” Today, Hain Celestial Group is traded on Nasdaq, Tom’s is “controlled” by Colgate-Palmolive and “Unilever owns Ben and Jerry’s.” And organic package designs are booming. Of the 17,779 food products introduced in 2006, “3,761 either were organic or had an all-natural claim on the label. But Brian Collins, chief creative officer of Ogilvy’s design group, dislikes the trend. “It’s aisle after aisle of design desperation,” he says.

“It’s the bottom of the barrel,” agrees Paula Scher of Pentagram, a design firm, citing classic v. natural Lay’s brand potato chips. Classic comes in the familiar “shiny yellow bag” while natural “has a brown harvest graphic design, old-timey typefaces and a matte bag. The natural chips cost about 10 cents an ounce more,” but “a handful of either still offers 150 calories and 10 grams of fat.” In contrast, branding analyst Elizabeth Talerman praises Timberland shoe boxes, which list "the amount of energy it took to make the shoes, how much of that was renewable, whether child labor was used and how many hours per pair Timberland dedicated to community service." She comments: "As soon as the mass market starts to understand these issues more we’ll get away from the fields and the giant vegetables and get back to better design." ~ Tim Manners, editor

Design Life Now

design life now

Eighty-seven designers across a range of categories are on display at Andrew Carnegie’s former N.Y.C. mansion in a triennial exploration of American design, this year called "Design Life Now,” reports Roberta Smith in The New York Times (12/15/06). As Roberta explains: “The displays here range from genius to schlock, delightful to dispiriting. They cover life-extending innovations, completely frivolous reiterations of received ideas … and more varieties of recycling than you can easily count. Fashion, building materials, furniture, toys, theatrical sets, jewelry and textiles, medical and military hardware, all qualify as design according to this exhibition.”

The designs are displayed in galleries on three floors. “In the fourth gallery on the main floor, for example, you will encounter the intimidating fruits of designs as applied by the military-corporate complex,” such as the X-43A research plane. Also on display are “pop-up tent frames designed by Hoberman Associates” and “a model of the Mother and Child Medical Center” now being built in Ipuli, Tanzania. Another gallery features “quality of life” designs, ranging from “the business class section of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner” to “LifePort’s organ transport systems.” Upstairs, one gallery includes “a wall of clay models for the animated characters of various Pixar movies,” as well as “limited-edition ‘art toys’ from Kidrobot.”

Some designs mix fun-and-games with more essential things. Howtoons is “a comic book that teaches kids scientific principles by showing them, among other things, how to make their own toys.” “Hunter Hoffman’s ‘Snow World‘ puts Pixar-like animation to use in a virtual video game that relieves the pain of burn victims.” The exhibit is meant to raise the question, “what’s design?” The answer, says Roberta Smith, is that “design permeates every aspect of contemporary life.” She also notes that “it is often surprising how little it takes,” citing as evidence the fonts used in the exhibit’s catalog. Called Clash, it combines "the two existing, classically opposed fonts Times Roman and sans-serif Helvetica — using one for consonants and the other for vowels." Design Life Now runs through July 29th. ~ Tim Manners, editor

Coca-Claus

santa coke

“Coke’s ties with Santa can be traced back to American Civil War cartoonist Thomas Nast, who drew him for Harper’s Weekly in 1862 as a small, elf-like figure who supported the Union,” reports Liz Clarke in The Mercury (12/21/06). That Santa was not only small but his suit was tan, not red (picture here – that’s Santa in the upper left corner). Nast later changed the suit to red, which Coke also adopted for Santa’s suit, allegedly because, well, red was Coke’s color. You know, brand consistency. Granted, Coke’s artists were basing their image on “the old figures of St. Nicholas — the third-century Greek philanthropist who gave to the poor and vulnerable.”

That was in the 1920s. It wasn’t until 1931 that Coke first presented Santa, officially, “as a jolly old man beaming with good cheer … in a series of advertisements wearing his scarlet outfit, carrying a large bag of toys.” The makeover was based on “Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas (commonly called Twas the Night before Christmas.) … Moore’s description seemed just right for Coca-Cola’s Santa — warm, friendly, pleasantly plump and human.” If you didn’t already know this, I hope it isn’t bumming you out. For the record, Coke has posted its version of its most famous strategic alliance here.

The reality of it seems to be that Coke’s “mission was more about proving that a cold drink could be popular in winter than the creation of a modern fairytale. But Santa stuck, and so did the ad campaign.” This masterstroke of product placement certainly continues to thrive: “Consumers tell us that Coca-Cola advertising signifies the beginning of Christmas for them so we wanted to create an ad that captured the spirit of Christmas and the optimism that embodies this special time of year,” Coke U.K.’s Cathryn Sleight told BrandRepublic. And so the latest Coca-Claus ad, via Mother, “celebrates the gift of giving.” (video here). And the greatest gift is, yes, a curvy, cold bottle of Coca-Cola. ~ Tim Manners, editor

Unboxing.com

unboxing

“It shows a different aspect of the product experience, not just what the product does,” says Melody Chalaban, explaining the online phenomenon known as “unboxing,” as reported by Emily Steel in The Wall Street Journal (12/7/06). “Unboxing” is, quite simply, videos of people taking their new iPods, Palm Treos, Wiis — even their Zunes – out their boxes. Chad Stoller of Organic says watching these videos is positively randy: “It’s the culmination of l-ust . There are a lot of people who aspire, who want to have something they may not be able to afford, and they can’t buy it yet. They are looking for some way to satiate their appetites.”

So popular are unboxing videos that, in addition to YouTube, there actually are two websites, unbox.it and unboxing.com. “The videos are every bit as prosaic as you might imagine,” although naturally Apple’s slinky packaging seems to add a little extra excitement. “The packaging is very elaborate, very exotic, so when we open up a product from Apple it is like an adventure,” says Vincent Nguyen, who launched unbox.it. Vincent himself can be found on his site opening up a Nintendo Wii. “After tearing away red and white snowflake gift-wrap to reveal the box, he slowly examines it and then pulls out every cable, remote control and instructional manual. Finally he gets to the console itself. ‘Let’s unveil it, let’s take our time here on the big baby that we just now are getting in’,” he says.

Nintendo’s George Harrison is baffled by this: “It doesn’t strike me, as a marketer, that it would be fascinating for someone to open the packaging.” Other marketers are busily figuring out how to cash in on unboxing videos, hiring consultants to help them get it just right. “It is an art,” advises Vincent, “you have to unbox it quicky and talk about it at the same time.” Marketers including Sprint, Coach and Bank of America are all said to be looking into unboxing videos “for marketing purposes.” Presumably they are also keeping an eye out for what could be the next big thing — teardowns — in which consumers take unboxing to the next level by stripping down their new gizmos into their component parts. Already, a video of a Wii teardown “has been viewed 55,965 times on YouTube.” ~ Tim Manners, editor

Crocker Corn

internet dogs

“I’d never eat Betty Crocker cornbread because it’s not for black people,” said an employee of General Mills (which makes the stuff), as reported by Steven Gray in The Wall Street Journal (11/14/06). For one thing, the Betty Crocker package featured corn muffins and African-Americans don’t eat corn muffins. They eat cornbread. For another, the product pictured on the package looked cold and everybody knows that the only way to eat cornbread is warm. And, anyway, the cornbread-mix-of-choice is made by Jiffy, “a quirky family-owned company based in Chelsea, Michigan. All of the above appears to be changing now, however — now that General Mills has a Harvard M.B.A. named Zack Ruderman on the case.

Zack has re-flagged the Betty Crocker product as “Authentic Cornbread and Muffin Mix,” and pictured the cornbread baking in a skillet (not a pan), with steam rising and butter dripping. Zack also started dropping coupons for the re-positioned mix in Sunday papers, especially “in the weeks before Thanksgiving, the peak cornbread eating season.” Perhaps most important, Zack persuaded B. Smith, “a restaurateur whom some consider the African-American Martha Stewart” to appear on the package.” So, which is it — Betty Crocker or B. Smith? Hm. That move was controversial because, to some, it brought back memories of Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and the use of African-American “characters” to help sell packaged goods items.

However, the consensus seems to be that the B. Smith imprimatur works because it’s not a “character or a drawing” and B. Smith “is not just any black woman.” And the bottom line is that, last year, pre-Thanksgiving sales of Betty Crocker cornbread mix “soared 50 percent from the previous year” and sales are up “23.3 percent in the 12 months ending in September 2006.” Despite such inroads, CEO Howard “Howdy” Holmes of Chelsea Mills, makers of Jiffy, is not concerned. “Our idea of market research is not a room full of M.B.A.’s,” he says. “We have a reputation and we got to this point by word of mouth … and it didn’t cost us a dime.” Ironically, Jiffy is positioned as … “corn muffin” mix. ~ Tim Manners, editor

Johnny Cupcakes

johnny cupcakes

When Johnny Earle looks at the world he doesn’t see an oyster. He sees cupcakes, cupcakes and more cupcakes, reports Elizabeth Holmes in The Wall Street Journal (9/26/06). “Every day, everything I look at I’ll see cupcakes,” admits Johnny, adding: “It’s like I’m looking in cupcake vision.” Hm, yes. And it seems Johnny, who is just 24, is somehow managing to turn his little world of cupcakes into pretty big money, as in projected sales of $1.2 million in T-shirts, sneakers, underwear and jewelry — all based on a simple drawing of a classic skull-and-bones, with a cupcake where the skull would be.

And to think it all started when a co-worker in a comic-book store began pairing Johnny’s name with anything that sounded funny. Johnny Crumblecake wasn’t so amusing, but Johnny Cupcakes — well, you’ve got to admit, that sounds pretty funny. And it inspired Johnny to design a cupcake-and-crossbones T-shirt, and start selling it online at johnnycupcakes.com. At first it was just a lark, with inventory stored in his mom’s attic, and mom helping fill orders. But the orders just kept coming and now Johnny has not only a growing online business, but also distribution through a few trendy boutiques as well as two stores of his own, including one on Boston’s trendy-and-fab Newberry Street.

You can’t miss it — it’s the one with the huge dough mixer in the window, and where the T-shirts “are displayed on oven racks,” the shopping bags are doughnut boxes, the signage looks like nutrition labels and the air is scented with vanilla candles. David Reibstein, a marketing prof from Wharton, thinks Johnny Cupcakes is too one-dimensional an idea to last. But Amos Tuck prof Kevin L. Keller disagrees, and thinks Johnny Cupcakes could be a keeper so long as the cupcake becomes “a backdrop or inspiration more than a focal point.” Johnny himself certainly has shown a capacity for creative expansion, packaging some shirts in cake-mix boxes, even sprinkled with flour, for instance. Emily Smith of Anamoly, a Florida boutique, says the shirts are popular "even with guys" who "like rockin’ T-shirts with cupcakes on them." And in them. ~ Tim Manners, editor

Rexam Plastics

Rexam Plastics

Perhaps best known for designing "the sleek eight-ounce energy-drink can for Red Bull, London-based Rexam plc, “the world’s top beverage-can manufacturer,” sees its future in something other than aluminum-canned beverages, reports Camille Ricketts in The Wall Street Journal (7/17/06). “The can technology is fairly old, the shapes are defined and it’s more about process development, reducing the weight” and “increasing the speed” of production, says Rexam ceo Lars Emilson. In addition, as noted by Merrill Lynch analyst Kean Marden, it’s easy for other beverage-makers to “come along, set up a machine and start producing” copycat cans. That’s not as true in other product categories — such as pharmaceuticals and beauty products, he observes.

But, of course, beauty products usually don’t come packaged in aluminum cans — which helps explain why Rexam’s plan is to expand into … plastics: “Demand for plastic is booming worldwide because the material is easily customizable, pleasing companies that want distinctive packaging for their products, and it is also lightweight and recyclable.” Graham Chipchase, head of Rexam’s plastics division comments: “Innovation is essential to the plastic division. Customers always want to see something new, something that stand out … You can’t survive in this business without it.” Merrill Lynch’s Kean Marden adds: “Pharmaceutical and beauty products are niche areas with high barriers of entry and a degree of intellectual property that will give them an edge.”

Rexam’s new focus on plastic already has resulted in "new products, such as invisible tubing for perfume spray-heads … a change Rexam believes clients will like because it allows for a classier bottle design." The company sees similar potential for innovation in beverages, although beverage-can sales still account for "as much as 66 percent of its annual sales," while plastics account for just 23 percent. But Rexam is investing heavily, "spending close to … $735 million … since September acquiring plastic firms outside of Europe … Rexam says the global rigid-plastics market has an annual growth rate of as much as six percent, compared with four percent for its basic can division." In addition, the rigid-plastic market is "high fragmented … the top 10 companies in the field claim only 16 percent of the market." And the price of aluminum keeps going up, too. Rexam’s biggest clients, by the way, include Coca-Cola, Anheuser Bush, as well as Pfizer, Unilever and L’Oreal. ~ Tim Manners, editor

Tupelo Honey

Bee Raw Honey

“U.S.D.A. Grade A honey is color, not a flavor,” says Zeke Freeman, “a former chef who founded Bee Raw Honey last year,” as quoted by Dan Bowen in The New York Times (6/14/06). That sweet stuff you buy in the little bear-shaped bottles at the supermarket? Forget about them. Zeke’s idea of honey sells for “$14 dollars for an 8-ounce jar, and $78 for a tasting flight of nine packaged in cork-topped single-ounce vials, plus shipping from beeraw.com.” The problem with supermarket honey, says Zeke, is that it’s a mixture that “honey companies buy from many beekeepers around the country,” who “then blend their purchases to achieve that picture-perfect golden hue and predictable flavor.”

Commercial honey is “also heat-treated and filtered,” which Zeke says “strips it of its nuanced flavor and most healthful attributes (although raw honey like Zeke’s “may contain bee residue that people highly allergic to pollen or bees could react to”). Zeke’s honeys are not only raw, but typically “single-flower” varietals, “produced when bees feast on one type of an abundant blossom.” So, you might have lavender, pine, thyme, Hawaiian kiawe or Tasmanian leatherwood honey. Bobby Flay, the chef, says he uses them all, but his new favorite is “tupelo honey … harvested in Georgia swamps” and said to taste like “butter and cotton candy.” Most single-flower honeys “can taste vaguely of their sources,” says Bobby, who likes to put “orange blossom honey … in his tangerine salsa.”

Sometimes the vague tastes are not entirely welcome, as in a certain “urban” honey “harvested at the Bronx Zoo,” by beekeeper Roger Repohl. “There are a lot of weird things growing in that zoo,” he says. But Roger “has become a mentor to a burgeoning clan of city beekeepers.” The city’s new taste for honey has meanwhile manifested itself in “the city’s first honey bar at the Blue Ribbon Bakery, "serving Mexican varieties they’re importing," where "counter cooks drizzle your pick of six over open-faced smoked duck sandwiches." The honeywagon is also a boon to beekeepers like Don Tremblay, who used to sell his crop to the commercial packagers, but now finds there’s more gold in "varietal worship … and now sells raspberry, locust tree, bamboo and other honeys at city Greenmarkets." He says he’s doubled his income. ~ Tim Manners, editor

Screw Kappa Napa

Four Emus

“Buying wine to these people is like going out and buying a CD or a book or a pair of jeans,” says Benjamin Dollard, explaining the trend toward male-oriented, user-friendly wine, as reported by Helen Coster in Forbes (6/19/06). He adds: “It’s dictated by fashion and image.” And critters. Many of the most fashionable new wines are named after animals, a trend started by Casella Wines and its Yellow Tail label, picturing the now-famous wallaby. Now there’s Black Swan from Gallo, Four Emus and 3 Blind Moose from Constellation Wines, as well as Little Penguin from Foster’s Group. And let’s not forget Dog House from Kendall-Jackson and Goats do Roam, by way of Fairview Winery.

Indeed, the naming of these newfangled wines may be more important than the wines themselves: Smashed Grapes, Screw Kappa Napa, and Fat Bastard are also racking up the sales. And then there’s the promotional push. Gallo samples its Barefoot Cellars label at volleyball games, while Fat Bastard “encourages fans to submit photos of ‘party-goers in any lively (and legal!) scenario’ to its website … Constellation Wines recently tapped two 31-year-old Australian guys to pitch the company’s year-old Twin Fin, the top-selling new wine in the U.S. last year … at surf festivals and art galleries. The label features a surfboard hanging out of a vintage convertible.” Ray Station Vinyards, meanwhile, takes the ‘macho’ up a notcho by promoting “hearty red wines for men,” and suggests that Pinot Noir “is for wimps.”

This male-focus in wine marketing is somewhat driven by wine’s inroads against beer: “A Gallup survey last year had 39 percent of adults declaring wine as their first choice in alcoholic beverages, compared with 36 percent for beer.” That’s not to exclude the women, of course: “Francis Coppola’s winery markets the Sofia Mini, a sparkling wine sold in a metallic pink can. A straw is included.” And while most of these wines are relatively inexpensive, count Gallo among those exploiting America’s new taste for vino at the high end. It still sells Boone’s Farm ($2.50 a bottle), but "since 1993 it has also been selling $45 chardonnays and $80 cabernets." Says Stephanie Gallo, marketing director: "Household penetration of wine is still low … We still have a long way to go." ~ Tim Manners, editor

Renova Black

Renova Black

So, there’s this story in The New York Times by Penelope Green, quoting a designer named Miles Redd about a paper mogul named da Silva who has introduced toilet paper that’s black. Naturally, it didn’t take long for Green to find a woman named Black — Laurie Black — to get a consumer’s reaction: “It certainly doesn’t jump out at you,” says Laurie of the black toilet-paper, strategically placed in one of the all-black restrooms at Double Seven, a trendy 14th Street nightclub. “I imagine once you’d pulled it out your train of thought would be interrupted … You’d stop worrying about whether or not you’d paid for your last drink or whether you were going to go home with this guy. You’d think, wow, black toilet paper. Am I really going to use this?”

Which is pretty much the kind of reaction da Silva — Paulo Miguel Pereira da Silva, maker of Renova Black toilet paper — wants. “In a design sense (black means) irreverence, maybe touching a bit on the core nature of art, which is to break rules and set new ones … Culturally, deep down, Renova Black invites people to break down whatever might be limiting as common sense ideas.” It’s also an open invitation to Kelley Blevins, a public relations guy, who no doubt placed this article in the Times in addition to placing Renova Black (which also comes in — brace yourself — red) in “urgent hot spots” as well as with hot designers for their “furniture fair parties.” Kelley’s previous claim to fame was “making the Chupa Chup lollipop a fashion accessory a few years ago.” So this assignment should be a snap.

What does Redd think of black? “My theory is that most everything can be chic at some point or for some period of time,” says Miles Redd, an interior designer who “has never ‘done’ toilet paper, though he has gone so far as to choose toothpaste for a client because the packaging appealed” (I’ll bet it was Extreme Clean). He thinks the “shock value” has appeal, although Henry Petroski, author of “Success Through Failure,” thinks people go to the bathroom for “calm and solitude” not to be shocked. Then there’s David Rockwell, "veteran of so-called entertainment architecture" who says: "We’ve reached the logical end for thinking about that product. Black doesn’t really say anything to me about the particular use of the product. It’s not really form following function; it’s counterintuitive, so that’s sort of interesting." Um hum. He does think Band-Aids have potential, though (and I’d say Apples, too). ~ Tim Manners, editor

Stirrings Mixers

“Beer has been the default beverage because it’s easy to open and consume,” says Bob MacNevin of Pernod Ricard, as quoted by Gwendolyn Bounds in The Wall Street Journal (12/20/05). But Bob thinks a new product called Stirrings, cocktail mixes that contain “all the fresh ingredients needed to make popular bar drinks, from an apple martini to a cosmopolitan,” could change all of that. “Stirrings makes it very simple because you can’t screw it up,” says Bob, who is looking at partnering his high-end spirits with these high-image mixers, created by Bill Creelman and Gil MacLean, a couple of 30-something guys from Nantucket. Bob is thinking that Stirrings, and say, Stoli Vodka, should be paired and marketed as a “total solution” at package stores.

The match does appears to be a likely one, mainly because Stirrings eschews both the usual high-fructose corn syrup and “supermarket packaging” of other bottled mixers. Not only is Stirrings packaged up “like something out of Williams-Sonoma” but it offers up unusual flavorings such as “rosemary and rose petals as well as a line of bar ingredients, such as blood-orange bitters and pomegranate grenadine … Mixes are made with natural products such as key-lime juice, Meyer lemons, pure cane sugar and triple-filtered water.” Plus a bottle of Stirrings sells for $9.99 (versus the usual $4 to $5 price point of bottled mixers), making it a more suitable mate for luxury spirits that might cost $20 to $30 a bottle. Even without such a match-up, Stirrings is doing really well — having passed the $10 million annual revenue mark this year,” with projections of growth to “$100 million in five years.”

Stirrings reached that point, one might suggest, through a combination of “lean operations” and the “innovation fulcrum.” A little more than a year ago, the founders hired Paul Nardone, the former ceo of Annie’s Homegrown, to bring some discipline to their operations. Among other moves, Paul streamlined inventory and outsourced production. He also changed the name of the product to Stirrings, from Nantucket Off-Shore. But when Paul insisted on paring down the product line, the co-founders balked, "and bombarded the ceo with menus and web links showing cocktails infused with the likes of basil and lavendar." Paul ultimately relented, and now believes that more varieties "will keep the company’s product line from stagnating." That strategy has Bill and Gil juiced — and thinking now about making a move into functional cocktail mixers, high vitamins and antioxidants for example. Says Bill: "If you are going to drink, then the cleaner the better." ~ Tim Manners, editor

Mallomars!

Some people say that ‘Mallomars’ is "a nine-letter word for ‘addiction,'” while others ponder whether the three-part cookie’s brand name is plural or singular, as reported by James Barron in The New York Times. But the real 21st-century mystery about Mallomars (which were introduced in 1913 and haven’t changed since) is why they are available only in the fall and winter. The official answer is that Kraft, the Mallomars manufacturer, says the cookies — basically a “beret-shaped marshmallow sitting atop a vanilla cookie” — go soft in hot weather. Well, can’t Kraft solve that problem and make the cookies available all year ’round? A Kraft spokesperson says they’re working on it.

Maybe they shouldn’t. This humble cookie, having forced withdrawal upon its addicted through spring and summer, is greeted like so many bottles of Beaujolais nouveau when it finally makes its way “to supermarket shelves after a warm-weather break.” Jodi Gray Kahn, who teaches English at Great Neck North High School on Long Island says her first bite of the season is “so fresh is would crunch.” The connoisseurs also include Peter Glazier, who runs Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse. He’s worked out a whole strategy to keep himself in Mallomars all year long: “You have to have one box in the freezer and two backups on the top shelf,” he says.” What — never heard of Mallomars? You must live outside the New York City metropolitan area, where 70 percent of all Mallomars are sold.

If you’re north of the border, in Canada, you may be familiar with a similar cookie called the Whippet, which is said to enjoy a similarly enthusiastic following. Mallomars actually were first created in New Jersey, but they’re now made by Kraft up in Toronto — but only September through March. Each box (cardboard, sealed in a magical, bright-yellow cellophane) contains 18 Mallomars, each "about the diameter of a medium-size man’s watch." Total calories per serving: 110. So, Mallomars — singular or plural? It must be plural because it says on the box that it’s two cookies per serving. A Kraft spokesperson confirms Mallomars is plural but says it’s for legal reasons ("that’s what’s trademarked"). At least one consumer (a lawyer no less) suggests it’s for other reasons: "You put one of those boxes in front of me and it’s gone," he says. ~ Tim Manners, editor