After years of watching people fumble with the little packets tossed in fast food to-go, Heinz announced yesterday that it has invented a new packet with three times more ketchup that can be opened for dunking or squeezed onto a hot dog bun. Really? After more than 50 years (the original patent for the ketchup packet was issued in 1955) and years of customers cursing the design, the company FINALLY came up with something better. It made me realize that, while there might be start-up companies that can supplant technologies, there are still industries that have market leaders with legit competition.
This reminded me of the story of Alcoa, the multinational aluminum conglomerate, and the Fridge Pack. As one of the largest providers of aluminum to the world, it obviously sees the soft drink market as important to it’s success. In 1999, the company saw that cans were sort of hard to keep in your refrigerator, as evidenced by all of the “can storage” as-seen-on-TV items in the early 90’s. So, the company decided to rethink the way cans were sold and stored, and invented the 12-can fridge pack. Stacked 6×2 (as opposed to 3×4 or in 6-packs with the soft plastic carriers), people learned to just throw the box in the fridge and forget about it.
I think the Heinz example is reinforced by a Malcom Gladwell article about ketchup. In the article, he talks about how there are a gazillion different mustards, but really only one (Heinz) ketchup. Despite many attempts to make the “Grey Poupon” of ketchup, none of them have succeeded. People like Heinz and, according to taste tests, pretty much consider it perfect.
So, what does this mean? First, it’s pretty awesome to be considered an irreplaceable product. Heinz has no legitimate threat and, as a result, no need to push the envelope too hard with respect to ketchup innovation (purple ketchup, anyone??). Second, you have to be able to anticipate your weaknesses/threats and gauge whether or not to do something about it. In the Heinz case, there might have been a consumer demand for a new packet, but the threat wasn’t such that it made a change a top priority. For Alcoa, not making an adjustment could mean a shift of consumer behavior to other soft drink containers (could prove disastrous for the company).
Companies always need to be on the lookout and figure out if they’re in a Heinz position or an Alcoa position. If the former, it’s really not worth spending the money on R&D when you could be dedicating resources to other, more profitable projects (Heinz’s restaurant squeeze bottles are a good example). If you’re Alcoa, you have to be able to recognize if there’s a threat to your business and, if so, you might need to innovate on the margins of your core offering to shore up your relevance in the market. In the end, you have to listen to the customer and do the strategic math. If your customers are willing to put up with your inadequacies, good for you! If not, get working on a solution before it’s too late.