Jul 12, 2019 - Economy

Iconic brands lose their luster

Animated illustration of a neon sign with a Heinz bottle, Coca-cola bottle, and Campbell's soup can turning generic.

Illustration: Aïda Amer

From Oscar Mayer and Campbell's to Clairol and CoverGirl, some of America's most famous supermarket and drug store brands are losing market share as consumers' tastes and shopping habits change.

Why it matters: The challenges facing well-loved brands reflect shifts that aren't likely to swing back in their favor. As older companies scramble to keep up with upstart competitors, they are introducing more modern product lines, like ones with plant-based ingredients.

Driving the news: Legacy brands are concentrated within a handful of huge corporations that are losing money on various business lines as their products fade in relevance and popularity.

  • Kraft Heinz said this year that the value of its Oscar Mayer and Kraft brands — with products like Oscar Mayer hot dogs, Jell-O and Kraft Mac & Cheese — were worth $15 billion less than it had previously stated.
  • Coty, which purchased the Clairol and CoverGirl brands from Procter & Gamble 3 years ago, recently wrote down the value of those brands by $3 billion, following a previous writedown of $965 million.
  • Sales of Campbell's namesake soups have fallen in 8 out of the past 10 fiscal years, per the Wall Street Journal.

These companies' "standard prescriptions for defending" their brands "no longer seem to be yielding results," Carol Phillips, founder the Brand Amplitude consulting firm — which counted Campbell Soup as a client — tells Axios.

  • "The tough thing about these products is they are really hard to improve on," she says.
  • "About the only thing you can do to it is change the package."

What's happening: Consumers are piling into nouveau and generic brands — like Kylie Jenner's Kylie Cosmetics and Brandless —some of which aren't even sold in physical stores.

  • Newer brands captured 31% of revenue share growth within the last four years — an increase from 27% in prior years, according to a recent Bain & Co. report.
  • "The barriers to entry and the cost of launching a new brand have never been lower," the Bain report said.
  • Amazon has hundreds of its own brands across nearly every product category, according to research firm Marketplace Pulse.

Between the lines: The companies that used to set the trends are now the followers. Desperate to remain relevant, old-line companies — already late — often jump into the fad of the moment.

  • Coty is reportedly in talks to take a stake in Kylie Cosmetics.
  • General Mills, struggling to lift sales of its cereals, yogurts and snacks, purchased Blue Buffalo, buying into the high-end organic pet food craze.
  • Conagra, which owns brands like Slim Jim and Hunt's ketchup, bought Pinnacle Foods (the maker of Bird's Eye, Hungry Man, Duncan Hines and others) in an attempt to cash in on demand for convenient frozen food. But months after the purchase, CEO Sean Connolly told the WSJ that Pinnacle's portfolio was “more negative than any of us anticipated it would be."
  • StarKist is hoping that a deal to feature its tuna fish in Home Chef's meal kits will help re-spark its relevance among consumers, it told the Wall Street Journal.

With plant-based foods so popular these days, a lot of companies are embracing the trend.

  • Tyson Foods, well known for its chicken nuggets, plans to roll out plant-based nuggets.
  • Conagra will "tap into the plant-based meat-alternative opportunity," Connolly told analysts last month.
  • Campbell Soup said it would introduce a “plant-based cooking platform."

These strategies are "a total crapshoot," says Robert Passikoff, founder of the consultancy Brand Keys.

The bottom line: What is a setback for the companies that once dominated store shelves is a boon for consumers, who have more options than ever.

  • “They have more choice and better products," Phillips says. "Finally, choice has proliferated.”
Go deeper