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The world of mainstream consumer brands is in a slow-motion transformation. The companies that make products such as Campbell's Soup, Gillette razors, Crest toothpaste and Dove soap are going through major corporate changes, restructuring and hiring new CEOs. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports these mainstream brands are facing the challenge of adjusting to new shopping habits.
ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Think about the last time you went to the supermarket. You probably spent no more than a few seconds choosing from all the different brands of toothpaste or frozen peas or oatmeal. In retail, this is called, dramatically, the first moment of truth. For brands, these few seconds used to be their Holy grail, but in the past decade, shoppers started saying they'd go by other things.
JULIET MCFADDEN: Usually by what's cheapest. Like, I'm not a brand person.
SELYUKH: That's Juliet McFadden. She's an office manager in Boston, and she's 23. She's just starting to build her finances and lifelong shopping habits. This makes her a huge target for companies like Procter & Gamble, Kraft Heinz or General Mills, but she is not easy to win over.
MCFADDEN: I'm not a cereal person. I just usually don't eat breakfast. I don't really drink soda ever. I don't like the yogurts with a ton of sugar in them that are super sweet. Paper towels are expensive. Stuff like that adds up. We have reusable, like, rags that we use and then wash.
SELYUKH: McFadden's generation often gets the blame here, the tired trope about millennials killing breakfast cereals or napkins or canned tuna. But really, most Americans could make a similar list. Maybe you choose the store brand of toilet paper, buy a fancier condiment instead of Hellmann's mayo, order eco-friendly diapers on the Internet. Here's David Luttenberger of market research firm Mintel.
DAVID LUTTENBERGER: Rather than just relying on brand familiarity, consumers buy today what performs for them. They are much less brand loyal, and they are more driven by performance, by convenience, by price.
SELYUKH: At least two major things have changed us as shoppers. During the last recession, Americans warmed up to cheaper off-brand products like generic or store brands, and then they kept buying them even as the economy improved. And, of course, the Internet has completely shaken up our shopping. Think about how people used to learn about new brands.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Singing) Oh, I'd love to be an Oscar Meyer wiener.
SELYUKH: Only the biggest companies could afford catchy prime time TV ads.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Singing) 'Cause if I were an Oscar Meyer wiener, everyone would be in love with me.
SELYUKH: And so the boomer generation of shoppers grew up reaching for classic American brands. Now, Campbell's Soup, that symbol of the postwar era of processed foods, is restructuring as Americans are demanding fresher foods with pronounceable ingredients. Kraft Heinz got rid of artificial preservatives and dyes from its mac and cheese. Procter & Gamble lowered the price of Gillette razors for the first time in years to compete with the online startups like Dollar Shave Club. Unilever bought that startup, Dollar Shave Club. The mainstream brands are being squeezed by rivals that are both cheaper and more personalized.
AMERICUS REED: They're in a bit of a pickle.
SELYUKH: Americus Reed is a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. He says legacy brands have to both stay true for the older, loyal customers but also attract new shoppers.
REED: It is a big challenge to reinvent yourself over and over again, right? You look at just, like, in the music industry, very few artists can continue being successful in the sophomore and junior album. You know, you have iconic artists like Madonna who can just reinvent herself every single time and speak to new audiences.
SELYUKH: But it is extremely hard to do when you're not Madonna, you're Campbell's Soup.
Alina Selyukh, NPR News.
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