Inside the Mix

Low-carb movement illustrates the power that the public can wield in the marketplace

Low-carb movement illustrates the power that the public can wield in the marketplace

Last week's Media Roundup on this page confirmed that outlets were far more choosy about what kind of low-carb stories to run - inevitable, given that every trend has its peaks and troughs.

It confirmed what many of us feel: The low-carb honeymoon is over. There was a discussion in PRWeek's offices last week about when low-carb jumped the shark, and one person suggested it was when Coke's C2 and Pepsi's Edge launched - it was pandering too much to the ketosis cops.

But according to Time magazine's May article "The Low-Carb Food Craze," 70 million Americans are watching their carbs, and 26 million of those are following a strict low-carb diet. That's one heck of a market that has sprung up in an incredibly short time. And experts agree that this is more than just a fad; it is a major shift in behavior.

What's really interesting about this market, though, is that it was created more by consumer demand than by manufacturer (and marketer) supply. As Mike Bawden, CEO of Brand Central Station, says, "Marketers seized this opportunity and tried to make something out of it, even though the basic science behind the trend was questioned and its advocates were publicly chastised." Consumers are grading with their pocketbooks the quality of the low-carb products they initially demanded and, through such media as the internet, are able to give their opinions to anyone who'll listen. The companies that succeed in this market, naturally, are the ones that take advantage of that.

What this shows us, says Bawden, is how it's possible for consumers to build communities for smart marketers to tap into. If enough people band together for a common cause - in this case, the fear of being overweight - then there is a lot of power there that they can leverage, including price, availability, and maybe even other "soft" concerns, such as how environmentally friendly the products are.

It might take time to answer them appropriately, of course. The first wave of low-carb products that came out of the major packaged-goods companies were pretty awful, according to consumers and many food-industry commentators. But this next generation is doing a better job of meeting consumers' desires in terms of taste, texture, and enjoyment. A subtle shift in marketing many of these also shows that the smart companies are listening to the 44 million consumers who are looking for lower-carb alternatives but aren't on a full-blown regimen like Atkins. The emphasis is on high fiber and whole grains, not low carbs - even if it's essentially the same product.

These marketers saw a category open up, and while they made missteps in the first instance, they actually seem to be listening to what consumers are telling them. When these voices are so loud, PR must be a key part of the marketing mix, as its m?tier is focusing on publics and forging cohesion with communities.

Even more vital, though, will be PR's role in the much longer term, when there is more conclusive scientific knowledge about the long-term effects of a low-carb diet. Whether this turns out to be a good or bad outcome, the issue will then be far more sophisticated than low-carb soda.

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