• Coca-Cola Zero Sugar

    Once upon a time there were more diet sodas on the market than there are at present, but to most men, drinking any one of them wasn't considered to be very cool. And so Coca-Cola exploited this market opportunity with a major product introduction in 2006 seeking to address this under-served market --"Coke Zero", a bold alternative to the more feminine diet drinks. Of course, the product was all about target marketing, and it was successful for a little while. The commercials were funny and the messaging was ubiquitous. But consumer tastes were already shifting towards low-calorie, non-cola substitutes and as a result, all sodas, sugary and diet alike, fell out of favor. That's how it stands today. You decide if Coke was wise.

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    It turns out that a different product, one that has been selling in international markets under a different moniker, has been a rather strong seller. "Coca-Cola Zero Sugar", which has been successful in Latin America, Europe and the Middle East will replace "Coke Zero" here in the U.S. this month, and although both sodas are sugar-free and contain the same artificial sweeteners, "Zero Sugar" tastes more like original Coke and looks more like it too. It is unclear why marketers decided to market a different product in the U.S., but one would assume that some exhaustive market research was conducted that revealed different international preferences. At least, let's hope that was the case.

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    Nevertheless, rather than ride out the decline of the soda industry with existing products, marketers at Coke have decided not to give up quite yet. Apparently, marketers believe that there are still plenty of consumers who are leaving the sugary drink category, but who still want what the Coke brand has to offer. And why not? The product has already proven successful in multiple markets, and Coke Zero is on the decline. Why not give it the old college try?

  • Becoming "Q-Potle"?

    It is no secret that Chipotle is struggling to regain the "best burrito" status it only recently held among the burrito-eating public as well as investors. Health scares have severely damaged the company's reputation (and stock price), and a slew of competitors have emerged in the last two decades to offer exactly what Chipotle offers--big burritos. This is not exactly innovation in motion here, folks. Anyone can make on-demand, customizable burritos, and several Mexican-themed fast food and fast casual chains are taking advantage of Chipotle's time of strife. Sales are on the upswing, but this is mostly due to an aggressive expansion rather than regaining the customers it lost during the publicity crisis. And while new food-safety controls are getting mixed reviews, the company is dealing with a new outbreak at an isolated location.

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    And so in an effort to generate buzz and, more importantly, remove the primary point of differentiation between it and rival Q-Doba, Chipotle has finally decided to test market what it calls "Genuine Queso" in 350 stores in the Los Angeles and Denver markets. If the test works, queso will be offered at all Chipotle locations and there will be little difference between the two market leaders in a product category that faces a very fickle public and many emerging culinary substitutes as major threats. This will certainly be bad for Q-Doba, and it may actually force marketers there to innovate in response. And perhaps this an idea that the marketing masterminds at Chipotle should have already entertained eons ago. It looks like things are heating up in this category once again. The burrito wars continue.

  • Apple "Harvests" iPod

    When a product or product line is in the "decline" stage of it's life cycle, an eventuality every marketer must face, it is probable that marketers have already "migrated" consumers to newer models or to a completely different category altogether. This way, you can keep the customers you have worked so hard to acquire. The products in decline are "harvested" for profits as marketing expenditures fall to almost zero, until such time as marginal costs exceed marginal returns and the product is deleted from the brand mix. This is considered a best practice in marketing strategy, and the savvy marketers at Apple are no different than the mainstream in their thinking when it comes to products like the iPod.

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    As has been the case with almost every other product it has introduced, Apple wasn't the first to develop the digital music player, but it quickly became the category leader, with the original iPod arriving back in 2001. But both the Nano and the Shuffle, which had already been relegated to the "accessories shelf", have been discontinued, as an increasing number of consumers have opted to use their iPhone's to play music. Thus the iPod has become an extraneous device for most, even though Apple is sticking with its double-capacity, $199 iPod Touch model until it is time to discontinue the product line entirely, a strategy called "harvesting". In short, Apple will offer an iPod product until there aren't enough consumers to make it worth while, and maybe there will always be a niche market of people who want a really small device (athletes, etc.) in addition to their phones. Meanwhile, Apple marketers can successfully meet consumer's music-listening needs through the ubiquitous iPhone, which just about every user of Apple products owns. The transition has been seamless, and this is what textbook marketing strategy looks like in practice.

  • Starbucks Dumps Teavana

    Starbucks is not exactly hurting these days, although the brand's growth has slowed, and it has been difficult to find a sustainable solution to get things moving again. Revenue growth of 4% isn't bad, but an equally significant indicator of health, frequency of customer visits, has been flat. And so the company has decided to jettison a brand it acquired in 2012 so that it can "improve its financial performance" in 2017, but a larger reason it is letting go is because the "luxury tea" concept hasn't really caught on here in the U.S.

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    Rather than find a buyer for the chain, which would have been possible with a more workable concept, marketers have instead decided to close all 379 of the mostly mall-based "Teavana" locations. Declining foot traffic in malls, a trend in recent years, has certainly hurt the brand's prospects, but the often-empty "tea bars" simply failed to attract enough interest among a population far more interested in consuming pricey coffee-based beverages. The notion that consumer affinity for coffee would naturally translate into demand for it's closest substitute product, tea, was an erroneous one. 

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    But Starbucks did recently discontinue an unsuccessful bid at selling alcohol at certain locations, and so it is good to see that marketers are willing to walk away from something that isn't working despite the level of investment they have made. Such "sunk costs" are difficult to absorb, but a company of Starbucks' size can certainly handle more than a few missteps. Perhaps the Teavana venture was simply a few decades before it's time. Perhaps a new generation of tea-seeking consumers will soon emerge, but for now, most of us prefer to stick with our skinny mocha's and cafe lattes. And Starbucks, who defined the whole category and fine-tuned its craft over many decades, should stick to meeting that need in the best way it possibly can.

  • Need More Blades? Shoot Us A Text

    2017 might be remembered as the year that branded product manufacturers finally unshackled themselves from the retailers that have been bullying them for so long. You see, it is the retailer that holds the lion's share of power in the vast majority of supply chains because they are closest to the consumer and decide what to stock. But when manufacturers sell products direct-to-consumer, it not only encourages "channel conflict" as retailer prices are often undercut by manufacturers who can offer much lower price points, but it also results in lower volumes for product marketers. Wal-Mart might be a bit of a supply chain bully, but you can sure sell a lot more stuff through those stores than you can direct-to-consumer.

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    This is why observers are closely watching Proctor & Gamble, owner of many dozens of brands including Gillette, as marketers there experiment with a direct-to-consumer model, bypassing intermediaries (who demand over half of the total retail price of the product for their services) and developing one-to-one relationships with their customers. Such direct contact will make direct marketing much easier for branded product marketers.

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    Gillette, for its part, has rolled out a program that allows "members" to receive razor blades on demand via text message. A 2015 Nielsen Homescan study found that 41% of men who decided to leave traditional shave clubs said they were getting more blades than they needed, a not uncommon problem with membership clubs in general. And so Gillette On demand is a rather ingeniously simple solution to that particular consumer problem. But whether or not all of this creates any nasty channel conflict with powerful, and very skittish retailers who won't take kindly to being undercut on price, remains to be seen. Gillette will have to tread lightly. This will be interesting.

  • A Walleye Warning

    In a situation similar to that which is currently vexing Cape Cod, Minnesota and much of the rest of the upper Midwest is facing a raw material shortage. In Massachusetts it has been the over-fishing of cod, and in Minnesota it's the supply of walleye, a very tasty white fish, that is now under threat.

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    Efforts to limit catch have failed to achieve an increase in walleye, and so the state's Department of Natural Resources decided to take the extraordinary measure of an outright ban of fishing during three prime fishing months for what has become a significant driver of economic growth for many. Last week, a flotilla of concerned citizens surrounded the governor's boat as he fished for bass in protest of what they say is a policy that is ruining their livelihoods. Businesses have closed throughout the upper Midwest, and tensions are high. Is all of this really necessary?

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    In short, the government's move is quite necessary to preserve the fish and ensure the area remains "fishable" for future generations. With the human population increasing every year on this planet and natural habitats forced to decrease, such wildlife management has become an important part of making sure that the product (nature, or in this case walleye) can be sustained over time. And with walleye populations continuing to fall, the economy in the area will only get worse over time. The ban will be painful for many, and the marketers who fail to adapt will perish, but that's the way most industries usually work. In this case, it is a regulatory factor driven by a change in the natural environment affecting the industry rather than consumer behavior. Either way, it doesn't make sense to use a resource until it is consumed out of existence. It's bad for the planet and it's bad for business. This is something that the people of Minnesota must try to understand, and in the meantime, they must adapt to a new normal. Perhaps the walleye will return over time, maybe soon, but for now it makes perfect sense to do what is necessary to preserve what has is becoming an increasingly scarce resource.

  • The Dynamic Digital Duopoly

    It is no secret that advertising dollars are migrating towards the Internet at a dramatic pace. It is also no secret that Facebook and Google (now a division of Alphabet, Inc.) are so far ahead of other on-line advertising mediums that there isn't really a #3 to speak of. Together, the two entities are responsible for allocating over half of global ad spending, and last year the two accounted for almost 80% of the $12 billion in growth that the industry experienced. Uh oh. Can everyone say "duopoly"?

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    Monopolies are bad for consumers, since a lack of competition tends to drive down quality and drive up prices; but a duopoly can be just as bad although it can be as entertaining as watching two greats like Jordan and Kobe play one-on-one basketball. And with these two online giants grabbing even more market share at present than in previous years, it is highly likely that regulators will begin looking even more closely at the marketing practices and acquisitions of these two companies. It appears that the emergence of a legitimate third player (we don't count the Chinese players like Alibaba because China limits outside competition) is exactly what we need here; but penetrating the market might be a difficult proposition.

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    For it's part, Snap believes it has enough young eyeballs to contend, and Amazon has the ability to disrupt pretty much any industry it wants. Verizon, after purchasing dinosaurs like Yahoo and AOL, also thinks it can become a meaningful player here; and don't forget about AT&T, which purchased Time Warner, and wants to become a major player in the content space. Someone will emerge, and whoever that is will have to generate a high level of premium content that appeals to advertisers, as well as deftly introduce innovative technologies that competitors will find difficult to duplicate. Amazon has lots of brand equity, but the paltry $2 billion the company is expected to generate in 2017 pales in comparison to the $74 billion in ad revenue that Google will generate. besides, Amazon is becoming too dominant in e-commerce as it is.

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    This would be a long row to hoe for any marketer, no matter how much money they have at their disposal. Challenging the Goliath's of Internet advertising will not be easy, but a duopoly is not sustainable in the long run, and so one or more legitimate challengers will have to emerge to stave off any government intervention. Stay tuned!

  • Merging for Survival?

    The proposed acquisition of Whole Foods Markets by Amazon wasn't about the survival of either brand, but about increasing market opportunities for both. But when home shopping kingpins QVC and Home Shopping Network announced that they were combining forces as consumers continue to migrate to e-commerce platforms, one might think that survival is exactly what both brands have in mind.

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    Not that long ago, these two TV giants ruled the world of direct-to-consumer sales. Before Amazon and others transformed retail, one of the best options to reach consumers in large numbers without going through stores was to offer your product on TV. It began in 1977 as a viable avenue for the "little guy" but quickly became very expensive, and primarily a platform for innovations to prove that have been accepted by consumers before retailers are willing to stock their shelves alongside a sign that says "As Seen on TV". Ah the good old days!

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    But will e-commerce destroy the TV model? Is this merger, in the spirit of Sears/JC Penney and HP/Compaq, merely two garbage trucks colliding? With annual revenue of $17 billion, the combined companies will control 17 cable channels around the world, and both retailers do sell online; so it's likely that some synergies will be realized, at least over the first decade. And as TV and Internet media continue to converge into something we could just call "video content", these marketers will have the scale to invest in new technologies and be better able to address the future. Home shopping is global, and it's still huge. And so it looks like this merger might also be more about opportunity rather than survival, and the combined entity, no longer worried about competing with each other, will be better able to reinvent itself as a new kind of retailer. Let's see what happens.

  • Electric Dreams: Part Two

    There has been so much hype in the media lately about electric vehicles, one would think that there has been some sort of new innovation to bring the cost of these vehicles down far enough to become marketable without heavily government intervention. But one would be wrong about that.

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    Yes, Tesla just launched a lower-end model intended for the masses (about $35k), and Volvo announced that they will phase out gasoline engines as soon as 2019. Indeed, the cars are no longer hideous, and battery life has expanded over the past few years. There is more infrastructure in place, and many people have become enamored of the idea that electric cars could actually replace gas vehicles. But there are two huge problems with this notion. First, the entire industry has been dependent on very extensive public subsidies to bring the prices down to reasonable market levels. Tax credits are given to both manufacturers ($7,500 per vehicle for the first 200,000 vehicles sold) and in many cases consumers in the form of tax credits; and taxpayers also support the industry through subsidies for re-charging services, government fleet purchases, preferential parking and lanes, having to pay gas taxes, and others. In short, without the significant help of the government, the industry probably wouldn't exist. Demand is not market-driven at present.

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    A second problem is that the vehicles do little to reduce the carbon emissions they are intended to address. Electricity is largely derived from fossil fuels like coal, which is being phased out by market and regulatory forces, and increasingly natural gas, which has become cheap and plentiful due to the Fracking Revolution. In addition, the batteries, which add about $20,000 to an electric vehicle's cost, are huge, quite toxic, and often have to be replaced before the life cycle of the vehicle is up. This is a major reason why tax credits are needed to reduce the price of the vehicle, and these batteries create environmental problems of their own. So what happens if the tax credits go away? When Hong Kong eliminated its tax break for electric vehicles recently, demand fell to almost nil. Closer to home, in Georgia, demand fell 80% after the state removed a $5,000 tax subsidy. So much for consumer demand driving the industry. When buyers of hybrid (electric/gas combo) vehicles enjoyed a $3,500 tax credit nationwide between 2005 and 2010, sales were still brisk even after the tax credit expired, peaking at 3.1% of total vehicles in 2013. But economics reared its ugly head and as gas prices fell, so did the demand for these cars. Market share now sits at 2.1% (including hybrids), while the share of purely electric vehicles in far lower.

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    But Tesla and its billionaire CEO Elon Musk attracts a lot of attention, Volvo and other car makers have gotten into the act, and governments are keen to demonstrate that they are doing something about climate change. Once Tesla has sold its 200,000 subsidized vehicles, marketers will likely still find plenty of niche buyers. But as for electric cars being "The Future"? There is certainly cause for a great deal of skepticism.

  • Golf Gains Ground

    Overall, I don't think that golfers are a very optimistic bunch. I am learning to play the game at present, and it seems that the majority of opinion is that I will probably never be as good as I'd like to be, and that I should try not to let the frustration that becomes such a big part of the game impede my enjoyment of the game. That's probably sound advice, but nonetheless, I hired a Colorado Hall of Fame golfer as my coach, and he doesn't buy into that ideology at all. With a sound instructional foundation followed by years of hard work, I do expect to become a darn good golfer over time.

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    One of the things that has struck me as interesting is the decline of the golf over the past 10 years or so, as many more courses have closed than have opened, and interest in the sport has dropped far below its peak. Is much of this due to the fall of Tiger Woods? The timing certainly is suspicious. Is the game just too expensive, time-consuming, and difficult to learn and  to play? Critics say yes.

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    There is cause for optimism, however, as "beginning" golfers have grown to a record 2.5 million, up nearly 14% year-over-year. Committed golfers, a group that accounts for 95% of money spent on the sport, finally grew for the first time in five years. And more than 96% of them say that they are likely to continue playing in the future. The remaining four percent we can assume were busy helicoptering their clubs or throwing their golf bags into water hazards. Even more encouraging is the finding that non-golfers who express an interest in playing golf (my former category), rose to 12.8 million, double what it was five years ago; while the number of people approaching retirement age is simply staggering.

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    This is all very good news for an industry that has been struggling to find it's post-Tiger Woods mojo, although "green grass" golfers (those who play the traditional 9 or 18 holes) are still down 1.2 percent and junior golf growth remains flat. Interesting stuff. Even more interesting is the growth of alternative forms of golf popular with younger consumers such as Top Golf and golf simulators, which are up three percent to 32 million players. Eventually, many of these younger folks now using golf-related novelty products might want to eventually try the real thing.

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    The cost of equipment has dropped dramatically, and courses have reduced fees to increase demand in an era of fewer players. Hundreds of courses have closed and very few new ones have been built by comparison, but it does look like the sport's fortunes are turning around. As contact sports like football become less popular with parents and as golf participation costs continue to drop, the industry will be easier for consumer to access, and it will likely grow for that reason. Dress codes have been relaxed and the powers-that-be are currently in the process of simplifying what has become a dizzying array of rules. And it's just good exercise. In short, it looks like golf truly has the potential of becoming a sport of the masses, but it still has many barriers related to the inherent difficulty involved in learning and playing golf. There is little doubt that this has been and will always be the largest barrier to a person's decision to adopt the game. The necessary task of changing these attitudes will up to product marketers, and, as Yoda would say, an easy task it will not be.

  • Cirque Turns Blue

    Founded in 1984 by a group of 20 street performers in Montreal, Cirque du Soleil Canada is now a company of nearly 4,000 employees with 18 simultaneously touring shows in 2017. Not bad for a bunch of former "buskers". And it's appeal doesn't appear to be waning, at least not yet, despite the perhaps overdue death of the traditional circus (with the closing of Ringling Brothers last month) and the appearance of many imitators over the past 15 years. The company seems to be doing so well that a private equity firm bought a majority stake in The Cirque for $1.5 billion back in 2015.

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    Now the successful brand has decided to acquire another successful brand, albeit one whose appeal has been fading for several years now, the experimental-theater company Blue Man Group. This is obviously an effort to expand it's range of entertainment offerings, and certainly the Blue Man Group (formed in 1991 in New York City) is much better off under the protective tent of Cirque du Soleil than it is as a stand alone product; but a clash of cultures could cause difficulty as the acquirer "digests" the acquisition. Although culture clashes are often cited as a primary reason that mergers fail in the long run, this shouldn't pose too much of a problem for the Canadians, since all people really want to see is the Blue Men in action. They don't give a hoot about the "Group". And now that The Cirque owns the rights to use the Blue Men, in all their splendor, the company have much use for the rest of the Blue Man organization, and so any potential cultural issues could be dealt with punitively and easily.

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    Of course the appeal of Cirque du Soleil could peak at any time, and for all we know it has already done so. Many, many things have changed just in the past 10 years as Millennials (the oldest of whom are turning 35) and their very different behaviors and attitudes continue to challenge established brands and change so much in the world of marketing.  But will Millennials, who thus far have shown a preference for experiences over tangible goods, want to take their kids to The Cirque to see the Blue Men? The experimental former buskers in Montreal sure hope they will, and if not in North America, then perhaps there are more opportunities in new markets. The product already enjoys international appeal. Could that appeal become global? And don't forget that the next generation (still unnamed unless you like "Generation Z") is approaching college age. What will it be like? This is something every marketer would like to learn, but we will all have to wait and see. In the meantime, enjoy the circus!

  • Minor Leagues, Major Merchandise

    Well, perhaps it's not really all that major considering the revenue that major professional spectator sport leagues in the U.S. generate, but merchandise sales among the 14 levels that comprise minor league baseball (MiLB) has enjoyed some pretty healthy growth over the past two decades. Sales were at a paltry $30 million two years after Michael Jordan played for the Class AA Birmingham Barons in 1994, and in that year Jordan generated $30 million in jersey revenue all by his lonesome. In sports marketing, this is referred to as "star power".

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    Licensed merchandise sales in MiLB will surely surpass $70 million in 2017, and that is without considering what can only be described as the "Tim Tebow Effect", star power that surely will result in a small, temporary spike in sales as he plays at the single-A level in the New York Mets farm system. Much will depend on his success and longevity. But steady growth without Tebow has been the status quo, and with franchises changing major league affiliations and moving cities more often than one might think, there are always opportunities capitalize on the excitement a team generates during its first few years in a new city.

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    Occasionally a marketer might decide to re-brand the team for whatever reason, and of course, sales of licensed merchandise featuring the new branding always spikes for the first few years. Binghamton recently changed its name from the Mets to the River Ponies. That's much more interesting, especially if you are a nine year-old girl. The Albuquerque Dukes were transformed into the Isotopes (a la The Simpsons). The Jacksonville Suns became the Jumbo Shrimp. The Brevard County Manatees became the Florida Fire Frogs, and the New Orleans Zephyrs (a AAA team that moved from Denver when the Major League Rockies came to town in 1993) finally changed its name, and they are now called the Baby Cakes. I am also a big fan of the Modesto Nuts, Tulsa Drillers, and of course the venerable Toledo Mud Hens. The names are very creative, and people love to wear them.

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    Obviously sales at the higher levels (AAA and AA) are more brisk that those at lower levels because the markets at the higher levels are much larger. A larger market most often means a larger fan base and thus more revenue. The average revenue generated by a AAA team is about $800,000 a year, compared with AA at about $380,000, and A ranging from $100,0000 to $305,000. It's not really what one would consider "big money", but it's a healthy category nonetheless. And with e-commerce opening the door to a global market, perhaps there are good opportunities outside of the team's market. Who wouldn't want to wear an Isotopes shirt? But with baseball experiencing flat growth in general and Millennials not very interested in the game, it will be interesting to see whether or not this 20 year trajectory of growth will continue. Methinks it will.

  • The International Booze Cruise

    The global market for alcoholic beverages continues to grow at a moderate pace, and as one might expect, the competition both within and between the three major booze categories is rather stiff. In the U.S., annual sales of beer continue to decline (minus 3%) as the craft beer craze cools, and consumers gravitate towards a bevvy of substitutes, including the moderately growing wine (plus 1%) and spirits (plus 2%) segments. The global picture looks similar to the situation in the U.S., with beer declining by almost 2% in 2016 and wine at just above zero annual growth from 2015. And although the spirits category is growing only slightly around the world, it is the only major category showing positive growth at this time.

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    Indeed a global "cocktail culture" has emerged as liquor makers sold a record number of spirits and mixed drinks in 2016. The shift in consumer tastes away from beer and wine and towards "drinks" might reflect a desire among many to consume beverages that have a higher percentage of alcohol, but are consumed with less liquid. This almost certainly means shorter lines for the restroom, but also reflects deeper changes in attitudes around the world. Variety is truly the spice of life. And as more consumers engage in variety-seeking behavior, a phenomenon that has been well-documented, pre-mixed cocktails and flavored alcoholic beverages have become the fastest growing segment within the spirits category.

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    Bourbon, whiskey, and tequila have all made inroads in the past few years as marketers penetrate new international markets, and the bevvy of mixed cocktails now dominating menus around the world is almost certainly partially a byproduct of the fickle, variety-obsessed Millennial generation. This global, generational shift in consumer tastes has left brewers feeling flat despite all of the activity in the high profile (but still relatively small) "craft beer" market; and it has left winemakers looking for any type growth whatsoever in what has so far been a rather fruitless effort. Perhaps this is a good time for marketers to bring wine coolers back to the forefront, a favorite drink of Generation X women in the 80's. Flavored beers are also popular, as they were in the early 1990's. Maybe the beer industry should combine efforts as the milk producers have done to raise the entire category, what marketers call "primary demand". After all, a rising tide often raises all boats.

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    Desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures, and marketers must think farther and farther outside the proverbial box to maintain pace with changing market conditions. Will the world eventually tire of over-engineered, over-priced cocktails and the sanctimonious "mixologists" that make them? Probably. But that doesn't mean that beer and wine marketers can afford to operate on "cruise control" and wait for this to happen. A more proactive approach must come into play.

  • EU Lays Down Law

    What has been a seven-year investigation into Google's business practices in the European Union has finally culminated in the largest fine ever levied on a company for anti-trust behavior.--$2.7 billion. European regulators have charged Google with abusing its dominance of the online search market by favoring its own online shopping recommendations in its search results, among other aberrations. If this is true, it is indeed unfair, and might cause one to wonder why U.S. regulators haven't acted as well.

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    It is true that Europe tends to have a less liberal attitude towards free market practices than the U.S., but anti-trust regulations in both places are focused on consumer protection, and with the EU still in the process of conducting two additional probes of Google, it appears that regulators probably aren't overreacting. Indeed, anti-trust concerns shouldn't necessarily stop with Google's dominance of search. Some observers have become equally concerned of late about Amazon's dominance in retail. Perhaps U.S. regulators, the FTC in particular, need to take a closer look at both of these important companies lest we find ourselves with less choice, lower quality, and higher prices--the hallmarks of monopolistic behavior--later on down the line.