Reflecting on past new product publicity

by Bryan Salvage
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When I first started covering the food industry for a horizontal food-trade magazine that covered every product category from soup to nuts back in 1980, our office received tons of first-class mail and overnight Federal Express packages on a weekly basis containing press releases and photos promoting new food and beverage products. Sometimes this material was also accompanied by samples of the new product being touted. It also wasn’t uncommon to get follow-up phone calls from companies or their agencies to ensure our editors received the new product materials. The challenge back then was choosing which new product releases to run because there were so many.

It also wasn’t uncommon for the heads of corporate communications departments at food companies back then to have been employed in that same capacity for decades. As a result, they were “the faces” of the company who encouraged editors to visit them at the corporate office and on occasion would even visit the editors at their home offices. Today, there are still some long-time corporate communications veterans holding such positions, but not near as many as there were decades ago.

Staying current on new product launches is far more challenging today for many editors. It’s extremely rare to get new product releases and photos via the mail system. I occasionally get some by email and seldom find such releases while scanning the wires for news.

What happened? I think the number of corporate communications officials working for food and beverage companies are even less today than they were in the 1980s. I was astounded to find out that back then companies such as General Foods, Campbell Soup Co., HJ Heinz General Mills and other much smaller food companies had only a few people making up the entire corporate communications department. Some employed outside advertising agencies to generate all new product releases.

Whenever attending industry conventions at Chicago’s McCormick Place and other convention sites throughout the US in earlier years, hundreds of bins in the press room would be overflowing with product releases and photos touting new food, beverage, equipment, supply and ingredient products and company reps would routinely dart in and out of the press room like hummingbirds refreshing the bins. I remember having to walk back and forth to and from my car with bags filled with new product releases at least two to three times per day.

Times have changed. Today, Chicago’s McCormick Place press room still has those press release bins, but most bins are empty and have been so for years...just a few contain press packets while others have stored CD’s or memory sticks. And once those bins are empty during an event, they usually stay empty.
What has happened to new food product PR over the years? To get an outside, expert perspective, I contacted an old friend, former associate and new products guru Lynn Dornblaser, director, CPG Trend Insight, Mintel International Group, Chicago. Agreeing that new food product PR is certainly not what it used to be, she cited several reasons for this change:

1. There are fewer bigger companies with national launches. “There is no point in promoting something if you are just testing it quietly or only selling it in one part of the country,” she says.” With all the corporate mergers, too, we just don't see the quantity [of new product press packets] we used to.”

2. Big companies group their initiatives into just a few press releases. “We still get the Kraft [parent company of Oscar Mayer] box of products around FMI [Food Marketing Institute convention] time, and a few of the other big companies [will send new products], as well,” Dornblaser says. “We find although we know about most of the products, they don't launch them all at once – rather, they promote them all at once.”

3. Venues for promoting products have changed. “There's more [new product publicity] that may be electronic, not the usual or traditional type of press release with a photo. There is much more online publicity than ever before,” she says.

4. There is less need to promote new product launches to the industry. “It used to be that it was essential for companies to promote their products in the trade press so the new products being launched would get noticed and retailers would feel good about what they've chosen to stock,” Dornblaser says. “Nowadays, it feels like retailers call the shots, so it doesn't really matter what the industry thinks. I also think CPG [consumer packaged goods] companies have shifted their PR away from the industry and focused almost exclusively on the consumer.”

I shared my suspicions with Lynn that some new product launches appear to be purposely done “under the radar,” which makes no sense to me. “We do find out about quite a few big products these days by finding them in the stores, that's for sure,” she agreed.

Although companies I visit still relay that new products are the life’s blood of meat and poultry industry, gone are the days when each new product was celebrated and touted in grand fashion. At the risk of sounding like Michele “Feech” La Manna, the Soprano’s character who constantly lamented about the “good old days” to Tony Soprano and his associates – I do miss the days when new product publicity was vibrant, constant, a top priority for just about every food and beverage company – and every new product launch was soundly celebrated. Here’s hoping more companies bring back the excitement in their future new-product launches.

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