The gilded hallmarks of wealthy American capitalism are the dizzying selection of products and services, and the corporate structures that support them: think office towers or of Cold-War era ads depicting communist countries with shelves containing only one brand of product. From them spring the conveniences and luxuries that have become so associated with the West and desirable for everyone. A car for everyone! A Rolls Royce for the rich, a Mitsubishi for the middle-class, and a Ford for the frugal.
A common counterpoint is that the world doesn’t need twenty brands of toilet paper, each with twenty of their own lines. Furthermore, microeconomic theory acknowledges that the presence of a myriad options is not out of public welfare, but to further extract value from the consumer. Though the world realistically doesn’t need a hundred makes of car with a hundred models each either, the same for toilet paper is far more ridiculous. Or toothpaste. Or laundry detergent. Or hand soap. The companies that manufacture such products are called “Consumer Packaged Goods” companies.
Their key competency can be derived from their name: they make and package consumer goods. Packaging is an area of competitive advantage because it is the only thing preventing the industry from becoming perfectly competitive. Who can tell the difference between twenty different packs of toilet paper if they aren’t wrapped in colourful plastic, splashed with words such as “absorbancy”, “softness”, and “three bonus rolls in new packaging”? Basic microeconomics states that ability to command prices comes with differentiation and consumer loyalty. CPGs have successfully managed to convince everyone that there really is a difference between one pack of toilet paper and another, and that it’s worth buying the more expensive pack.
So it seems only fitting that I was first alerted to this trend by a CPG company, Procter and Gamble, during a recruiting session five years ago. In their company presentation, they highlighted that one of their most successful recent initiatives was to create collaborations with preexisting brands. The example I remember the most clearly was Tide-branded detergent with an Febreze logo stamped onto it. Through a lot of corporate double-talk, they explained that customers would have imprinted on the two positive associations, and be inclined to purchase the double -branded product over those of their competitors.
I’m not sure how stupid customers are, or how much of a role subliminal messaging plays. I’m also not sure if this was the first instance of a CPG company leveraging two brands that already existed in their portfolio to sell another product that also already existed in their portfolio. But it must have been successful, because P&G kept doing it. Then, I noticed that other CPG companies also followed suit. Swedish Fish Oreos. Scope Crest toothpaste. Kit-Kat Nestle bars. Polysporin Band-Aids.
Having worked at a large traditional company in a quasi-marketing role since graduation, I’m also quite familiar with how this decision making process happens. Competition is fierce, and closely watched. One company takes the lead in this sort of innovation, and as soon as the next quarter, the gears are turning for the other companies. They see the material impact on their market share, and slowly the word makes it up the company ladder of command. A senior executive, someone who has an appetite for risk and wants to make a name for themself recognizes a the opportunity, and initiates the project. This means they tells their directors that they wants this to be done, who in turn tell their managers, until it trickles down to the analysts. A few slide decks and dashboards are made, as well as several key performance indicators and stakeholders established. And boom, we have Flaming Hot Smartfoods popcorn.
This phenomenon of exploiting previously owned intellectual property to bolster other products is now omnipresent across industries. The omnipresent Marvel superhero movies that never seem to leave cinemas is an example. Theatergoers are treated to something that is a little less than a standalone tale, but much more than an installment in every single Marvel feature. In seemingly independent stories such as Shang Chi or Black Widow, there are callbacks to the franchise, throwing in characters, references and cameos that exist for fan pleasure. Would I have watched Black Widow if it wasn’t a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Likely not. Would Shang Chi received as much attention outside of the Asian-American community if it didn’t promise nods to the MCU for diehard fans? Also likely not.
This extends beyond the MCU, or even superhero movies for that matter. Alien vs. Predator is another film franchise formed by combining two already highly successful franchises, as is the Monsterverse franchise, featuring King Kong and Godzilla. Some studio executives over at Warner Brothers saw this and realized that they were sitting on a mountain of untapped IP: enter Ready Player One and all the assets it leverages — The Shining, Back to the Future, and The Iron Giant. Half a billion worldwide box office sales later, WB decides to repeat the formula for Space Jam 2: A New Legacy, taking lines from not only the IP collaboration playbook, but the well-worn rebooting dead franchises pamphlet. In addition to LeBron James and the Looney Tunes cast, the movie features characters from the WB warehouses as spectators. As of now, the movie has barely grossed more than budget, a classic LeFlop.
The specific occurrence that really led me to think about this phenomenon however, are the celebrity meals. The Travis Scott Burger and the BTS Meal from McDonald’s are the ugliest cases of pure demand exploitation. Throngs of adulating fans bought myriad burgers and nuggets at the behest of their favourite artists. The first McDonald’s celebrity meal was with Michael Jordan in the nineties, but after the popularity of the Travis Scott collaboration, many more McDonald’s meals followed. Great marketing creates a need where there wasn’t one to begin with.
How can the success of these collaborations be measured? Not only by the stampede of customers, but also by its imitators. A few months later, Restaurant Brands International, owner of Burger King, Popeye’s, and Tim Horton’s, came out with their own collaborative meals, with Nelly, Megan Thee Stallion, and Justin Bieber respectively. I wouldn’t be surprised if Baskin-Robbins of Inspire Brands or KFC of Yum! Brands didn’t develop their own celebrity meals soon.
Corporate mimicry isn’t particularly nefarious, nor are celebrity endorsements a new trend. But having an understanding of corporate decision making allows humour to be found. Imagine the executives at RBI watch their market share suddenly flow to McDonald’s once a quarter, causing some worry among the board. No one really wants to suggest copying McDonald’s but as the months trickle by, an executive begrudgingly agrees to spearhead the initiative. The command flows down from director to manager to analyst, where a shortlist of celebrities are chosen. Somewhere in the RBI headquarters are countless slide decks and spreadsheets dedicated to evaluating different celebrities, their strengths and weaknesses, how well they fit the brand profile, and their risk factors.
Then, out of all the possible celebrities to match McDonald’s musical behemoths of Travis Scott and Saweetie, their international sensations of J Balvin and BTS, the good folks at RBI settle on Justin Bieber, Megan Thee Stallion, and Nelly? Nelly, who hasn’t been relevant for nearly two decades? Perhaps they did focus group testing with the folks who eat over at Burger King and decided that Nelly was the most influential celebrity of their generation. I can imagine explaining a manager explaining a Timbits collaboration to their director: “It’ll be called TimBiebs. Get it? Like Timbits, but with Biebs. Trust me, the kids will love it. We’ll do marketing on TicTac.” Picturing a sweating director in an ill-fitting suit trying to convince a panel of old white men that singer of “Thot Shit” and “WAP” is the ideal ambassador for their home-style fried chicken restaurants has me grinning as I write this.
Despite the ludicrousness of all of it, the CPG products, the movies, the fast food, the marketing worked and continues to work. Companies have been able to not only convince customers that their product is uniquely different from that of their competitors through these collaborations, but also that they absolutely need the products. If you liked Godzilla and King Kong, why not both?
The issue here is that no real value is being created. With the exception of the movies, these companies aren’t even feigning some sort of innovation, they’re merely co-branding a product without any advantage to the consumer. Toss in the corporate structure, and it’s suddenly being replicated across companies, across industries. In the realm of CPGs, pop movies, and fast food, perhaps it serves to give little delights to the masses. But I hope this trend stays contained to low-tech monopolistic competition industries, and there continue to be places where innovation is valued.