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The Sweet Satisfaction of Redefining a Category

By Kristy Gulsvig

You may have noticed that over the past year or so, corn processors have been putting in a valiant effort into rebranding what has been known as “high fructose corn syrup.”

The corn processors are doing exactly what you would expect them to do as their product continues to be viewed poorly by the public. They’re fighting back, and fighting back hard. They’re pushing a re-education of their product.

Consumers have increasingly blamed corn syrup (among other things) for the country’s wide-spread obesity. As a cheaper substitute to sugar, corn syrup was used for a long time as an invisible ingredient in sweetened packaged foods. Suddenly, corn producers found themselves on the other side of an “Intel Inside” grassroots effort away from their product – whether they understood it or not, consumers were demanding products with “cane sugar inside,” not corn syrup. As consumers continued to vote with their wallets, the sentiment has pushed packaged food producers to begin replacing corn syrup for regular old sugar, and advertising it as a benefit.

The new wave of “corn sugar” ads is aimed at changing consumers’ perceptions and reversing the preference for cane sugar in hopes of regaining their clients in consumer packaged goods. In fact, the Corn Refiners Association has launched a broad-based education campaign claiming, among other things, that corn sugar is all-natural, and essentially the same as cane sugar.

Corn refiners are trying to rebrand corn syrup in a huge way – they are redefining it. They have attempted to change the language conversation, renaming “corn syrup” to “corn sugar,” which in turn forces you to qualify the other sugar – either “cane sugar” or “table sugar” – which in essence, redefines cane sugar, as well. (Notice I can’t just say “sugar” and expect you to understand which one I’m talking about.) “Corn sugar” begins to level the playing field. It’s a pretty genius move.

The campaign has gotten so much face time, it even sparked an SNL spoof:

While it’s difficult and sometimes costly to do, redefining your business category can be a great tool in a marketer’s arsenal. It is often done when a company has been around for a while and has fallen on difficult times – either through stagnant or negative growth, or after having reached saturation in their current market.

Redefining your category can help generate interest when a product/service has become commoditized, adding a previously unrecognized dimension that clients and prospects find compelling. It can help refresh a company whose perceptions have become stale and whose clients have become indifferent. In this particular case, the goal is to neutralize existing negative perceptions attached to a product.

The consumer campaign must be very successful because now, sugar farmers have moved the issue into the courtroom – they are suing the corn refiners for false advertising, alleging that the claims the corn ads make are false and misleading. They are asking for lost profits and advertising to re-re-educate consumers. (I’d really like to see those.)

It’s hard to tell where this debate will end up – it will likely fall on the science behind the claims either side is making. (Is corn sugar/syrup natural? Can your body tell the difference?) Assuming that the corn refiners did their due diligence and are not making false claims, this redefinition of their product can have a huge bearing on their perceptions in the market and can potentially begin to flip consumers back to their side.