Marketers of ice cream, beer, soup and even shampoo are discovering what stylish women everywhere know: It’s totally awkward when two guests show up at the party wearing the same little black dress.Anheuser-Busch InBev recently introduced its first black beer bottle, complete with a black label, for Beck’s Sapphire. Häagen-Dazs, owned by General Mills Inc., has just brought out a gelato line in black containers.
Even the once-cheery laundry detergent aisle, a veritable ’60s kaleidoscope of blues, greens and oranges, is going darker. So is soup.
“The use of black has really exploded,” says Mike Cecil, senior brand manager of Renuzit air freshener from Henkel AG’s Dial Corp., which in August introduced a new line of cone fresheners packaged in black.
But a Renuzit rival, Air Wick from Reckitt Benckiser, launched its own black packaging for a line of air fresheners named for the national parks last month. Black helps companies “break through the clutter,” says Domenick Tiziano, senior brand manager for Air Wick.
Big supermarket brands invest countless hours and dollars studying which colors and graphics will grab the eye of hurried shoppers maneuvering through crowded store aisles. So the more-or-less simultaneous adoption of black by a brand and its rival would seem like an unfortunate coincidence.
Not at all, Renuzit’s Mr. Cecil says. His competitor Air Wick is using black for candles, scented oils and automatic sprayers—but not cones.
Because most stores stock air fresheners according to form, not brand, the two brands say their black packages are unlikely to sit next to each other on shelves.
Some marketers say black’s popularity is a reaction to the continued lackluster economy, which has consumers gravitating to lower-priced items. Black subtly conveys “premium,” they say.
People want premium products so long as they don’t cost too much, says Pat McGauley, vice president of innovation at Anheuser-Busch. Consumers are saying, “I can’t drive a high-end car but I can drink a slightly more premium beer without breaking the bank.”
Beck’s Sapphire, which Anheuser-Busch says is brewed with “German sapphire aroma hops,” costs 20% to 25% more than regular beer.
Shampoo rivals are also dressing alike for the packaging prom. In January, L’Oréal SA launched Advanced Haircare shampoos and conditioners, a new line in sleek black bottles—the same month when Procter & Gamble Co. brought Pantene’s black-clad Expert Collection to stores.
The use of black is especially striking for Pantene, which has relied on white for its packages for so long. People inside P&G even sometimes use the phrase “wall of white” to refer to Pantene’s territory in the shampoo section.
Kevin Crociata, marketing director of P&G’s North American Hair Care business, wouldn’t comment as to whether he is worried about Pantene’s and L’Oréal’s dueling black packages. A spokeswoman for L’Oréal declined to comment.
With so many brands in black, there is always a danger consumers will be turned off, or worse, simply won’t notice.
Renuzit is already updating its black air-freshener packages, which hit store shelves in summer, adding brightness to the images and text to help them pop even more on store shelves.
“Our launch packaging ended up a bit darker than we set out,” says Dial’s Mr. Cecil. “Being lead to market with black in a category brings with it some learning curves.”
Black has been a packaging standard in consumer electronics for years but once was considered taboo for other products, including food, packaging experts say.
“You wouldn’t even have the conversation about the color because it had too much negative baggage,” says Rick Barrack, chief creative officer at CBX, a packaging design firm in New York.
That changed in the economic boom of the 1980s, when more companies adopted black packages to signal luxury, says David Turner, partner at the package-design firm Turner Duckworth.
Breyers ice cream from Uniliver was among the products in that wave, he said. The trend eventually lost steam.
An early sign of black’s comeback came in 2010, when Kimberly Clark Corp., working with CBX, introduced a black package for U by Kotex. In the feminine-protection aisle, the product was a contrast to the pastel hues typically used on products there.
U by Kotex has built up a 7% market share in the $2.6 billion U.S. business.
For Beck’s Sapphire, Anheuser-Busch did extensive testing, showing consumers computer simulation of store shelves and using eye-tracking technology to observe how well they saw the product compared with others.
Anheuser’s Mr. McGauley says his company had “some reservations” when it was contemplating using a black bottle and black label because, he says, “black can look heavy.”
It added an image of a glass of golden beer to the six-pack holder, reassuring consumers that the beer itself wasn’t black.
Pantene’s Expert Collection products sell for about $8.99, compared with a base price of about $3.99 for regular Pantene. “The technology inside is really breakthrough,” says Mr. Crociata at P&G. One of the formulas has a thickening agent that “gives you the feeling of 6,500 more hair strands in your ponytail.”
Dial says the new Renuzit air fresheners have roughly 25% more premium fragrance oils and cost about 25 cents more than the company’s existing cone fresheners.
“It’s about finding new ways to signal affordable luxury,” says Mr. Cecil at Dial.
In summer 2011, P&G brought out Downy Unstopables, a line of black-packaged scent boosters that claims to give laundry “up to 12 weeks of freshness.”
The product has exceeded expectations, generating $50 million in sales in the first year, a Downy brand spokeswoman said, and it’s on track to double sales this year. It sells for about 32 cents an ounce, compared with 9 cents an ounce for regular Downy.
Product makers are under unrelenting pressure to differentiate their products in the sea of cardboard and plastic in supermarkets.
The number of new product introductions has exploded over the past decade. In 2012, 40,194 new products hit the market, up 52% from 2002, when 26,412 products were introduced, according to market research firm Mintel.
“Packaging needs to work harder now,” says Benjamin Punchard, Mintel’s senior global packaging analyst.
For Häagen-Dazs, it’s critical to catch shoppers’ attention fast. “A lot of people don’t enjoy walking down the frozen-food aisle. It’s cold and you are slightly uncomfortable,” says Cady Behles, brand manager for Häagen-Dazs, which just launched a gelato line in black containers.
Häagen-Dazs conducted focus groups with 150 consumers last June, months ahead of the gelato launch.
Participants in one group saw the new black packages nestled amid other ice creams in mock store shelves. A second group saw a gold-and-white container.
Overwhelmingly, Ms. Behles says, consumers found the black packages were more eye-catching and appealing.