The question for a manufacturer is how much do consumers understand the knowledge regarding nuts and health?
Smart Balance is available in a creamy version in a 16-oz. plastic jar priced at $2.49-2.99. Health messages are all over the front of the jar. The fact it has 1,000 mg of omega-3 fatty acids is a separate burst, and the package notes the omega-3s come from flax oil. On the back is a story of why omega-3s are important to children and adults.
The product also proclaims "trans fat-free - naturally" across the top. There is no hydrogenated oil, no trans fatty acids, 25 percent less saturated fat and no refined sugar.
Taste and texture are critical to the perception of peanut butter. Texture is experienced via the consistency in the jar, spreading on the food and mouthfeel in the mouth. Most tasters, when they opened the package, felt this product looked like peanut butter. It had a distinct peanut butter smell - with a roasted peanut note fairly obvious. It tasted like peanut butter and many commented that if you hid the jar and gave them a sandwich with this peanut butter, they would not be able to tell the difference between this nutrition-loaded product and the familiar product they use on a regular basis.
Many of the mothers, when they realized this, thought this would be great to give to their kids. Quite nutritious. Some tasters felt it did not taste peanuty enough and wanted a more familiar sweet peanut flavor. This may be due to the 1g of sugar per serving (most lead brands have 2-3g).
Others, our health nuts, felt that the flavor blend and the texture gave enough healthy cues that they might use this product instead of the natural stuff they picked up at local health food stores. Peanutty, not too sweet, spreadable and healthy.
Many tasters looked at the back of the jar and were happy with the sodium level of 110mg (compared to 125-150 mg in many others) and the fat level of 16g or 25 percent of daily values, with each fat defined (2.5g of saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 2g polyunsaturated fats and 10g of monounsaturated fats).
Does the product deliver?
Smart Balance has focused on a fat blend mixture based on research from Brandeis University. The idea is to improve the ratio of HDL "good" to LDL "bad" cholesterol by using a balanced blend of fats of approximately equal proportions of the three principal fatty acids: polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and saturates.
Smart Balance walks the line between a natural food product and a nutraceutical. While other spreads have tried additions of plant stanols as their key drivers to reduce cholesterol, Smart Balance made this idea more accessible by talking about healthy fats and not about ingredients. This new product is a change not only in terms of product category for Smart Balance, but also in terms of talking about the addition of an ingredient (in this case omega-3s).
Omega-3s are naturally part of the peanut butter since they are contained in the flax seed oil that is used in the natural oil blend. The real question is do consumers understand the benefits of omega-3s enough for this to be a driver for choice?
Smart Balance has figured out how to "stay the course" and this product fits well with the message they have been delivering to consumers for many years now. That makes a new message easier for a consumer to understand.
How to make the idea bigger
This product is likely to grow the category. It redefines what peanut butter is for consumers looking for a healthier option than just "natural." The health message is strong and naturally occurring. However, the package label does not look like peanut butter, so some consumers were unsure of its expected taste.
Repeat with this product will be driven by the trade-off of the price-value proposition vs. the health halo of the product. Value is a complex idea to measure. For some it will be about the healthfulness of the product (in this case a whole food), for some it is the quantity of product and for some it is the flavor and texture experience.
The key is not the other peanut butter competitors, but getting across to the consumer that this is a great healthy spread alternative to other spreads that are less healthy.
Rating: Smart Balance Peanut Butter delivers on its promises of health. It reframes peanut butter from a "good" protein with fat to a "good" fat with protein. This is an innovative way to focus consumers on their choice and usage of fats and spreads.
Market Potential: Yes, but this will take some time to move beyond just Smart Balance users.
Hollis Ashman is chief strategist and Jacqueline Beckley is president of the Understanding & Insight Group, a strategy, business and product development firm that connects with consumers using qualitative and quantitative approaches. For more information, see www.theuandigroup.com.