Et Tu, Me Too?

By Jeffrey Klineman

WE’RE BACK FROM ALL OUR early fall travel and safe at home, which is a great thing because with the conference season out of the way, we can move on to the most productive time of the year.

See, this is that time of the year when we have products rolling in from all over for BevNET’s Best of 2011, and we’re thrilled because the fridge is full and the caffeine coffers are overflowing. Hence, the productivity.

There are so many teas and energy drinks here, in fact, that the espresso maker is getting lonely and the milk isn’t getting frothed.

But at the same time, we’ve seen so many new products this year that they’re starting to become a little indistinguishable. Not because we’re moving too fast on things, either, but because, unfortunately, it’s starting to look like the “Me Toos” are back in town.

You know what I mean the minute I start talking about them – the energy drinks and the enhanced waters that remixed the formulation and used the-same-but-different labels to try to peel market share off the category leaders. They’re the brands that aren’t even “fast follows” but are instead “faux follows” to more authentic entrants.

We are seeing them not so much in older, more established categories, however. Sure, the occasional Red Bull knockoff still trickles in, and the mixture of tea and lemonade is apparently just too darn alluring for some companies to put the effort into something else, but lately the trick appears to be to get the lowest common denominator of an entry point into the category of the moment, and let it fly.

So right now, we’re seeing plenty of nondescript relaxation drinks and energy shots that seem to have no reason for being other than the possibility that there might be some retailer or distributor willing to take a chance on those categories.

While coconut water and aloe seem to be evolving with decent creative thought behind them – there’s a lot of flexibility in the juices themselves that seems to engender many different varieties and brand propositions – for others, it seems, the motivation is just to dip a toe into an emerging business opportunity, no matter if that toe looks like every other toe in the water.

Here’s what we can say about Me-Toos. They rarely – if ever – work out. No matter how exciting the category play is at the time (and some of the Me-Too infested categories we’re seeing right now, like relaxation, aren’t yet proving to live up to their hype), the real play is the brand. That’s how you attract the consumer to the category, not through the category itself. All the rest is just bottom feeding.

We saw it a few years ago with enhanced water, with teas and with energy; we saw it with malternatives and with the first craft beer implosion. When it comes to new categories, you don’t want to say, “I’m just like Red Bull/Vitaminwater/AriZona/Four Loko/Sam Adams.” In the end, yes, there’s a first-mover advantage, and there’s an advantage for those who have the wiles and the endurance to get it right, and there’s some pricing and packaging innovation that can occur. But too many folks want to turn the entire race to the front into a race to the bottom. And too many people heading there can drag the whole deal down with them.