Villing & Company

Drive-thru Anticipation: New Heinz Ketchup Packet Creates Fresh Buzz for an Old Product

The year was 1968. The United States launched its first manned Apollo space mission. Wide ties were in. The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” topped the charts. And an enduring symbol of America’s love affair with quick service restaurants was born: the Heinz® ketchup packet.

Over the next four decades, progress yielded multiple moon landings, skinny ties and approximately three dozen Beatles compilation albums. Yet one thing remained constant: The design of the Heinz® ketchup packet.

Until this fall.

That is when Heinz® will nationally offer a fundamentally new design of that staple of drive-thru eating that will allow for dipping of French fries or other items. Gone will be the days of ripping, squeezing and cursing the splatter on your white shirt. The new design allows diners to peel open the top, place the cup-like packet on the table (or car armrest) and dip ‘til their heart’s content. And for those who have trouble with change, you can also rip off an end and squeeze the ketchup out, just like you did in days gone by.

The design announcement garnered no shortage of “Gee, why didn’t they do this before?” comments and a wealth of coverage from around the world. News outlets as wide-ranging as the Associated Press, Christian Science Monitor and the London Telegraph covered the story, often with food columnists offering praise for the new design. The New York Times hailed it as a “ketchup game-changer.”

Marketers can glean a few do’s and don’ts from the new design and subsequent buzz it’s created. First, do guard against complacency. What worked well yesterday – or for the past 40 years – is not immune from review and change. Was Heinz® in need of a “game-changer” to boost sales or its reputation? That’s doubtful. Yet it is reaping a windfall of positive media coverage because it chose to change one of its most recognizable products.

Second, don’t assume your messages can only apply to one audience. While Heinz’s new packet design is a tangible product useful for two different consumer applications (squeezing and dipping), a parallel could be drawn to intangible marketing communications. In a time when audiences are segmented and labeled ad infinitum, it’s important to remember there are certain threads that weave through the fabric of multiple demographics, and your campaigns become rounder and more colorful when they are sewn into your messages. You can’t be all things to all people, but Heinz® reminds us that you can appeal to different groups, even groups as vastly different as squeezers and dippers.

Finally, do remember to continue to ask what your audience wants, even if they’ve been responsive for a very long time. As part of the R&D for its new design, Heinz® purchased a minivan to study the needs of ketchup consumers where packets are most prevalent and the most problematic: in the car. They found that what passengers in back wanted out of their ketchup packet was not necessarily what the driver wanted. Similar to the first lesson, the new design for which there is much fanfare is the result of asking what your audience wants, even after 40 years of relative success with the old design.

Of course, what remains to be seen is how Heinz® will handle the national roll-out of these marvels of modern condiment innovation and how many quick service restaurants pick up the new packets. They are already in use in test markets in the Midwest and southeast. For the rest of us craving to dip, I suppose the old Heinz® tagline of years ago is appropriate: “The best things come to those who wait.”

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