Purple power: squirting fun on your fries

Funky purple sounds like a new shade in teen lipstick. Actually, it's the latest ketchup color.

Adult consumers may shrink at the thought, but they aren't the target. Heinz has its eye on millions of influential youngsters, like those who spelled success for Heinz's Blastin' Green EZ Squirt ketchup a year ago.

In expanding condiment color choices, Heinz is in sync with the industry trend of pushing the fun aspects of food products.

Most parents may still resist letting children eat their food and play with it, too. But the times are clearly changing.

The latest buzzword in the business is "eatertainment," coined to describe the fusion of eating and entertainment.

James McNeal, the author of "The Kids Market: Myth and Realties," cites McDonald's as a major influence in this regard. With toys in Happy Meals and playgrounds on restaurant property, the golden arches are well understood by children as a symbol of play, he says.

Heinz's EZ Squirt colored ketchups - red as well as green and purple - come in curvy, plastic bottles with an ultrathin nozzle. The nozzle encourages children to do what they've been doing for years with mustard, namely using it as a decorating tool.

This way, kids can personalize their food by drawing a smiley ketchup face on a hot dog or hamburger, or squiggly lines on their French fries.

Candy and cereal have long been marketed to children, but the industry's recognition of their influence in a wider range of product choices is escalating.

This is reflected in the introduction of many new child-friendly packages and products, such as blue Cheetos, cartoon-shaped SpaghettiOs, yogurt with sprinkles that change color, and Quaker Oats oatmeal with candy eggs that "hatch" into dinosaurs.

Such products, McNeal says, attempt to tap the consumer clout of children 12 and under.

Statistics show that in 1999, these children influenced $146 billion worth of their parents' food and beverage purchases, while spending $7.42 billion directly on such products themselves.

"On one hand, you have marketers learning how to satisfy children as consumers," he says. "On other hand, you have mom and dad giving children more decisionmaking power and more money to back up that decisionmaking."

Michael Mullen, a Heinz spokesman, calls the EZ Squirt ketchups, introduced last October, "probably the most successful product launch in company history."

The one-year sales goal was met in the first 90 days, and Heinz's industry-leading share of ketchup sales jumped from 55 percent of the market to 62.5 percent.

The company received more than 100 letters last Christmas from parents seeking to stuff their children's stockings with EZ Squirt bottles. "That's what the kids were requesting," Mr. Mullen says - this even before a national promotional tie-in began at Burger King restaurants to Blastin' Green and "Shrek," an animated movie featuring a comical green ogre.

Some have called children's powers of persuasion the nag factor, and look skeptically upon marketing efforts to sell kids on the fun and sentient pleasures of food products.

McNeal contends, however, that these are needs every bit as important to children as taste, texture, and nutrition.

"Play is more important to children than food," he says. "I work with the World Health Organization, along with the Centers for Disease Control, and one of the things they are asking me to do is to figure out how to sell healthy lifestyles to children. To train and teach about health, they're going to have to combine it with play."

In the case of ketchup, children are already major consumers, accounting for half of all ketchup consumption.

Heinz traditionally has promoted its ketchup as thick and rich, but decided that in order to increase sales, the company needed to listen to kids.

In focus groups, children said they wanted a smaller, easier-to-handle bottle and a new color.

Green was the most popular color choice and has nothing to do with green tomatoes, which are too sour for the purpose of making ketchup.

Since the addition of green food coloring changes the ingredients, Blastin' Green can't technically be called ketchup, according to Food and Drug Administration guidelines. Thus its new name.

Parents expressed doubts that kids would like Blastin' Green, which is fortified with Vitamin C. In the first three months on the shelves, though, the green EZ Squirt outsold its red counterpart about 9-to-1.

"Over time, that's leveling out," says Mullen, who indicates "we're down to about a 60/40 split, which is what we expected."

Now purple EZ Squirt is finding its way onto supermarket shelves, and based on youth focus groups, Heinz expects to have another winner.

"Boys and girls alike love the cool purple color," says Brian Hansberry of Heinz.

"Just look at kids' entertainment, and you'll find everything from purple computers to Harry Potter purple lightning bolts. Purple is a bold, fun color that brings a hint of mystery and magic to kids' condiment creations."

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