Marketing: Are consumers seeing through clear brands?: Muddy logic may condemn transparent products to a short shelf life

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The Independent Online
CLARITY is a virtue. Or so it would seem from the rash of new products on supermarket shelves that invite you to look right through them.

Coca-Cola and Pepsi led the way in purging products of colour by introducing Tab Clear and Crystal Pepsi. Some supermarket own-brands followed suit. Then the Seltzer Drink Company introduced clear versions of drinks containing what would normally be brightly coloured fruits, such as cranberries. It even went so far as to adopt clear-sided cans, so that you could see the colourless drink inside - something the cola brands stopped short of doing.

The message on the cans was: 'If you are looking for artificial colouring, preservatives or additives - forget it] This is pure glacier-fed spring water from Iceland - lightly carbonated, with subtle natural flavours.'

Other beverage brands employ such names as Caledonian Clear and Clearly Canadian and are also flavoured with fruits leached of colour. Some soaps, shampoos, cosmetics and toiletries are also going clear.

'The clear brand is in the ascendant. Nineties consumer values all augur well for it,' said Harjit Gammon of Lewis Moberly (formerly of Craton Lodge & Knight, the brand consultants responsible for taking the colour and fragrance out of the antiseptic Dettol in 1986 to produce the clear cleansing product Dettox - well ahead of the trend).

But when Miller, the big US brewer, tried to launch a clear beer last autumn, it was a leap too far. In tests across three time zones, drinkers chose to reject a beer that looked like water. Ron Richards, the brand's marketing director, was left to wonder why it is people associate flavour and colour differently in different drinks.

Clear brands are intended to send many signals. Some of them are contradictory. Top of the list is the idea of purity.

In cosmetics and toiletries, such as Pears' Pure Body Care foam bath and shower gel, the absence of colour signifies absence of fragrance. In drinks, it signifies the absence of sugar, additives or E-number colourants. In soft drinks in particular, it also conveys an air of sophistication intended to attract a more adult and high-spending consumer, the sort who wouldn't be seen dead drinking Ribena or fizzy orange. (Seltzer drinks are almost twice the price of better-known brands.)

In Taunton Cider's Diamond White Extra Strong brand and its supermarket imitators, clear means strong. But not for beers.

In other products, transparency is the new 'green'. The faulty logic is that if the product disappears, then it must be environmentally friendly. Alberto Pure & Clear shampoo has taken this route to compete against more conventional brands.

Any number of trends are being conjured up to explain the clear phenomenon - from New Ageism to a wish by beverage manufacturers to exploit the drift away from dark alcohol products to vodka and other clear spirits.

But there are already signs that clear brands may be short-lived. The case of clear beer may be an omen rather than an exception to a rule. Recently the Wall Street Journal published a table charting the rapid decline in sales of many clear brands.

'The evidence in the States is that clear beverages have peaked,' said David Lowings of Dragon International, the marketing consultant.

'The word is out that these New Age products have got virtually as many calories as the coloured stuff. In beers, the consumer appears to be saying 'Why?' I am sceptical about clear per se. There needs to be a rationale for the clearness.'

Some clear products are openly courting disaster. In the United States, Procter & Gamble's famous Ivory Liquid now omits the colouring that has given the brand its distinctive whiteness for more than 30 years - negating its own brand name in the process.

Alberto Pure & Clear shampoo is claimed to be both 'environment-friendly and biodegradable' and it is plastered with 'green' campaign logos. Yet it can boast nothing greener than the PET plastic commonly used in many product containers.

As for Seltzer Drink, its clear cans have aluminium tops but plastic sides, making them impossible to recycle - a clear defeat for 1990s environmental values.

(Photograph omitted)