This article explains how Heinz ketchup is beginning to quietly roll out a new, 15% lower sodium, formulation for their flagship product.  According to the article, they don’t plan on making any signficant announcements, and the only way someone would have known would be to study the nutritional panel on the label.

Unfortunately, in this new world of instantaneous information, there is no such thing as a ‘quiet’ rollout.  And the real question becomes “how will their loyal consumer base react?”  And ‘loyal’ is not a word used loosely here.  The Heinz ketchup Facebook page has over 389,000 fans (or, I guess, ‘likers’ now…).  And if you check out the page now, it is FILLED with people begging Heinz not to change their formulation.

This situation raises a couple of key questions in my mind:

1 – why would anybody in this day and age attempt to slip a major product formulation through undetected?  The potential negative reaction from the forumlation change can only be exponentially compounded by the outrage from loyal consumers who will feel duped, mistreated, and disrespected.

2 – why not simply launch a ‘low-sodium’ heinz option?  Not only would this show nutritional responsibility, it would also, most likely, lead to incremental category growth as sodium-watchers may re-enter the category or find more reasons to use ketchup in ther daily routine.  Down the road, if severe cannibalization took place and the observation in the market was that there was not a need for 2 separate SKU’s, the orginal could be slowly phased out.

Now, of course, Heinz is a great company with a lot of smarts – so I am sure there are lots of good reasons (and probably some very long decks) to support this course of action.  However, I’d love to see the research that supported this and really understand if they went beyond pure taste testing into the emotional responses they might receive from their loyal consumer base.

I’m predicting some sort of turn-around on this decision – either reversing the whole thing (like Tropicana did with their packaging redesign) or coming out with Original and Low Sodium versions.

Lessons here:

1 – There is no such thing as a ‘quiet’ roll-out

2 – Don’t underestimate the power of emotional reactions over rational taste testing

What do you think?