For Heinz, balsamic ketchup is a social event
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Heinz has cooked up this new ketchup recipe using balsamic vinegar that it would like a few people to try. Maybe the 800,000 or so people who say they "like" the company on its U.S. Facebook page would like a taste?
Tammy Cavaness Shelton seems game. "Oh that sound delicious! I can't wait to try it!" she posted on the Heinz Facebook page on Wednesday afternoon.
But Sandy Thompson Nevels had her doubts, posting in online shorthand: "U should give out samples of the new stuff."
Product launches just aren't what they used to be, and the H.J. Heinz Co. is among those testing the tools of social media to see if they can be effective in both gauging consumer reaction and generating chatter.
In this case, the American division of the global company also is indulging in a little free trade of ideas from its United Kingdom operation.
Heinz UK began selling ketchup with balsamic vinegar earlier this year through its Facebook page, giving it a claim as the first food brand in the UK to sell products on the social media site. The Brits bought enough to justify the company's decision to start selling it in grocery stores, alongside traditional Heinz ketchup.
That success also convinced the Pittsburgh company to try both the recipe and the social media marketing in its home country.
Starting in mid-November, consumers here can be the first on their block to own the balsamic vinegar version. They'll need to order it through the Heinz Facebook page for a mere $2.49 per 14-ounce bottle -- minus a 25-cent discount -- and $2 in shipping fees per bottle.
"This is the first time we've offered a product for sale via Facebook in the U.S.," said Jessica Jackson, group leader, public relations and communications for Heinz North America.
Later, toward the end of December, the new ketchup flavor should start appearing in grocery stores. The product will go away in the spring, at which time Heinz officials can check their numbers and see if it's a keeper.
To take orders through Facebook and ship out merchandise, the North American team is using an online shopping system put in place to sell personalized labels on its traditional ketchup through myHeinz.com.
Meanwhile, the team back in the United Kingdom is wrapping up another interesting promotion that allowed Facebook users to order cans of cream of tomato soup or cream of chicken soup complete with labels encouraging a friend to "get well soon."
The company sold nearly 2,000 cans of soup that way, according to Ms. Jackson.
As social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have wiggled their way into millions of users' digital lives, marketers have been focusing more time and money on figuring out how best to use the site's direct connections with consumers and their friend networks.
It's not always easy, since stilted official comments don't play well with consumers trying to get a straight answer from the brands that they buy or use. Corporations have had to learn how to ignore or at least politely respond to criticism, and how to sound real and not overly packaged.
Once they've mastered that, there's a lot of potential, said Lincoln Merrihew, managing director, business insights at Kantar Media's Boston-based online marketing firm Compete.
He noted that Ford helped build buzz about its Fiesta by getting the cars out to the target audience and asking them to post on Facebook.
His company's research also found that iTunes' Facebook page received more traffic than its iTunes webpage in February. Turns out that people who don't have iPhones but want to buy music through their phones use the iTunes Facebook page.
Such sites can be particularly useful for companies like Heinz that don't typically sell directly to consumers and don't, therefore, have easy ways to collect names, addresses and other information on who is buying the product, he said. For example, those who order the new balsamic vinegar might be good candidates for a follow-up survey on how they liked it.
The launch via Facebook is also a smart way for Heinz to try out an unfamiliar product, he said. "I think it's a low-risk experiment. The worst-case scenario is nobody wants it."
Even then, food companies are always whipping up another new recipe. The United Kingdom team recently offered a 25 pence coupon to Facebook fans to get them to try Heinz Tomato Ketchup Fiery Chili flavor. The coupons became 50 pence coupons when forwarded to friends, said Ms. Jackson.
So what does this new ketchup flavor taste like? "The balsamic ketchup retains the familiar flavor of the Heinz ketchup consumers love, with just a slight twist," Ms. Jackson said, adding that those who order it through Facebook also will get a free sample of the company's other big ketchup innovation this year, the Dip & Squeeze packet.
If ideas can easily cross the Atlantic, so can Facebook fans and news. Jan Farrell, whose profile identified her as living in Stepney, Newham, United Kingdom, wasn't impressed with the announcement Wednesday.
"Coming soon? I already have it in my kitchen! Almost empty bottle at that!"
First Published October 27, 2011 12:00 am