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IQ News: Digitizing Dinner

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Packaged-goods companies defy Web pundits.
Consider this quote: "Digitization, the new technology, the convergence of computing and telecommunications sciences, the plunging unit costs of [personal computers], rising levels of disposable income and the deregulation of the airwaves all mean that simple, one-way mass communication has its best and biggest days behind it."
Sound like a report from MIT's Media Lab? Or some wishful thinking from a high-tech agency? Nope. This geeky worldview belongs to Unilever chairman Niall FitzGerald, as expressed in a speech last year.
The head of the world's second-largest consumer-goods business isn't planning to abandon the traditional media trifecta of television, radio and print to communicate with grocery shoppers the world over. But he is talking about selling more boxes of onion soup mix, spaghetti sauce and butter substitutes with the help of the Internet. FitzGerald believes Unilever can make a connection between its brands and customers' hearts and stomachs through the construction of large-scale sites dedicated to products like Ragu and Dove soap.
These ambitious plans raise a question: Can the medium that provides us real-time coverage of the latest White House scandal and the promise of cheap international phone calls also influence consumers to purchase a $1.17 box of soup mix?
Analysts have been nearly unanimous in their opinion that packaged-goods firms are wasting their money on sites that provide such content as cooking tips, nutritional information and parenting insights. The Web is a great resource for influencing purchasing decisions on big-ticket items such as personal computers and cars, goes the conventional wisdom, but groceries are a different story. These critics suggest that soap hawkers would be better off shelving expensive brand sites in favor of strategic (read cautious) online media buys--banners and sponsorships.
Yet despite continued criticism, nearly every marketer with a presence in the supermarket aisles--from Procter & Gamble to Campbell Soup to Gerber--now has a presence online. Companies such as Unilever have decided that the Web is crucial not only to their post-millennium business operations, but to results at checkout counters today.
Take the case of Unilever's Lipton Recipe Secrets brand, which has launched a new site for both the Web and the Home cable modem network. The project is considered an interactive test bed in which the company intends "to measure the effect on brand awareness, attitudes, perception and [product] usage as a result of individuals' exposure to a Web site," says project leader Marc de Swaan Arons, a Lipton senior brand manager and head of the Lipton interactive team. According to company officials, the results will determine which Unilever brands go online next.
With design assistance from CKS (formerly SiteSpecific) and Spiral Media, both New York, www.recipesecrets.com is equipped with a database of over 6,000 recipes, a library of video demonstrations and cooking articles and scheduled chats with professional chefs. The $1 million site boasts a comprehensive search engine for cooks, with tips on how to whip up anything from tailgate fare to French cuisine--with each recipe, of course, containing Lipton Recipe Secrets mix as a featured ingredient.
"I really think this is brand hubris," says Bill Doyle, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, Cambridge, Mass., who concluded in a study last year that packaged-goods advertisers "will be lucky to get one unique visitor for every $5 they spend" on destination site construction.
But Campbell Soup reports that since the April relaunch of www.campbellsoup.com, the company has seen evidence that there is a direct correlation between content-rich product sites and repeat visits--and, most important, a spike in sales, says Maria Puoti, director of global advertising services at the Camden, N.J., company. Campbell's now has five brand sites, which are promoted on product packaging, online and in the case of Campbell's Soup, in a TV spot that broke last week. The result: more than 1 million surfers have visited campbellsoup.com. Once there, they're spending on average 18 minutes a pop, three times the industry average for a site visit, Puoti says.
Similarly, the Recipe Secrets site is designed to bolster direct communication between consumer and company. Lipton believes it will help time-strapped consumers cope with the increasingly impersonal grocery shopping experience. "It brings back the old days of shopping, where the corner grocer used to know your food preferences," de Swaan Arons explains.
And who knows? If some predictions pan out, the medium could even make the trip to the supermarket as close as a mouse click away. Unilever's FitzGerald has said he believes 15 percent of grocery sales will be done over the Internet in less than 10 years. In preparation, the company intends to do business with cybergrocers like Peapod and traditional supermarkets with Internet aspirations.
But before this can happen, Lipton faces some daunting obstacles. As with all packaged-goods companies' Web efforts, Lipton is dogged by the gender gap: The majority of its best consumers are women, thought to be Net-shy. Also, recipesecrets.com has targeted "really busy working women who want to provide good meals for their family but don't have the time," says Jennifer Scanlin, an independent New York-based new media consultant hired last year by Lipton. To reach these time-strapped potential surfers, Lipton has made recipe information readily accessible from the home page.
Forrester's Doyle is skeptical. Distributing recipes over the Web makes sense, "but they need to break that utility off and park it in many places," he says. Packaged-goods giant P&G has followed this course, hedging its bets in the medium by spreading money between ad buys, site construction and joint special-interest online publications with Time Warner and Conde Nast.
But Lipton has no intention of breaking up its megasite. Instead, it will paste the URL on packaging and embark on a public relations push. In addition, the company has spent $200,000 on research, including commissioning, among others, Audits & Surveys Worldwide and Cyber Dialogue, both New York, to measure online usage patterns and how they affect brand perceptions.
"This project is one of many Unilever projects around the world," says de Swaan Arons. "We take this medium very seriously."