product proliferation

Some brands are line extension machines. To jockey for shelf space, they launch waves of new SKUs each year, often without meaningful differentiation from what is already there.

I’m sure there are category management justifications for every niche item, but most supermarket shelves are cluttered and hard to shop. Does Crest really need 40 varieties of toothpaste? Clutter causes confusion and confusion causes paralysis.

I love the refreshing simplicity of Help Remedies. I first spotted the healthcare brand at Duane Reade a couple years ago. Against the clutter of a typical drugstore aisle, they stand out.

Help’s rally cry campaign is “Take Less”: “Everybody in the drug aisle likes to talk about more, bigger, extra, super, and maximum. But we’re not going to talk about that … Help is a new type of drug company—a drug company that promises you less.”

I’d love to see the “Take Less” philosophy in more categories. Category management should include more clarity management.

As HBS professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter observed, “When everyone else suffers from over-complexity, there is a market for products and services that simplify life.”

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed print of this week’s cartoon. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post. I’ll pick one comment by 5:00 PST on Tuesday. Thanks!)

After drawing this, I remembered I drew a similar cartoon back in 2003, Flanker Madness. Here’s one from the archives.

  1. Bill Carlson says

    Agreed, and likely you’ll draw another similar cartoon in 2021…

    However, this topic always reminds of toilet seats. Can’t recall if it was retailer or brand driven, but recognizing that 80% or more of replacement toilet seat sales were basic white, a retailer explored cutting back on the category by eliminating many of the colors — idea being that the space (including substantial space allocated to items on display in order to avoid consumers opening cartons) could be used for other items.

    Sales dropped.

    Add those back in — sales rise — of white.

    The inference was that the perception of a broad choice matters to consumers even if they land mostly on one option.

    Not defending the proliferation of products with sometimes indecipherable points of different purely to protect or earn facings, but just shows we consumers can be an unpredictable lot!

  2. Tracy Carlson says

    A wonderful cartoon and post, as always! Product proliferation is often a failure of empathy. Most brand extensions simply don’t offer much genuine differentiation or value–even enough to offset the noise and clutter they create. Overcomplicating a category can usually be justified on internal grounds (share of shelf, competitive parity, marginal volume, whatever), but it does consumers no favors. Ultimately it can backfire, contributing to apathy and brand disenchantment, and making shopping something to dread. (On the subject, you might enjoy “Stopping to Buy Goods on a Snowy Evening”:

    Your Help Remedies is a wonderful example of finding opportunity in simplicity. But what happens down the road when Help’s looking for incremental volume and growth? Extending can be awfully attractive…

  3. Kimmra says

    Love both of these- too much focus on new line extensions to fill the volume gap vs. brand relevance and smart marketing. As always, you are spot on, my friend! : )

  4. T says

    The product proliferation is like a drug attic’s bad rash. In a desperate attempt to obtain, maintain or steal shelf space, manufacturers bombard the retailers with so call relevant line extensions or product renovations since true breakthrough innovations are so far and few between. The manufacturer feels good about the action but this is a temporary high that soon adds complexity to their operations.

    The retailer plays their role since they need to feed the “what’s new” craving. This is a strong desire where there are entire convention floors dedicated to the introduction of “new”. The retailers feed the addiction since they want to have exclusivity or be the first to market in order to show their adversaries that they are more intelligent. Let’s not forget that the that new products smoke cloud also feeds the feature flyer ad activity and help to boost retailer profits with the lucrative listing /slotting fees programs.

    You are right as we get high on this banal expenditure of energy I wonder if the consumer is like the anxious caregiver trying to understand what they did wrong.

  5. David Sprogis says


    Great piece – often a real problem for me. I am new to needing glasses and never carry them on me. Just the other day, I had to ask the pharmacist for help reading the tiny labels before finding the one I needed.

    In a prior struggle, as a new parent several years ago, I struggled to was distinguishing diaper styles. In that case, reading was not my problem, it was understanding the benefits of each product.

    It comes down to communication – each product may have its own good communication, but it fails in the context of a portfolio.

  6. Ashley C. says

    I find less-than-noteworthy brand extensions a result of marketers filling in their 12-18 month marketing plans with “new news” that the retailer demands on an annual or semi-annual basis. A result of hubristic marketers – of every level – not getting out of their own way, or perhaps category captains defending their space to the global retail chains? Perhaps. However, having worked as a marketer for the company that owns the toothpaste brand that you mentioned (and in category management for the “Flanker Madness” brand that you referenced – prior to the Kraft buy-out), I will say that marketers DO have intentions of bringing relevant innovation to the consumer, however lightning speed-to-market combined with everyone involved wanting to make their sales projections, well – guess what, the consumer ultimately suffers. Money all around wasted. This is what happens when the power of “consumer marketing” shifts to global retailing “partners.”

  7. Sean Kennedy says

    When you say, “When everyone else suffers from over-complexity, there is a market for products and services that simplify life.”, you are describing the startup scene. Many times startups that jump into a market and successfully create a big splash are a result of identifying a simpler way of doing business. Cut out the bureaucracy, the user confusion, and limitations. Give them exactly what they want in a very simple way, let them pay, and everyone is happy.

  8. White Toilet Seats and Vanilla Ice Cream says

    As usual, just as many insightful comments from your readers!

    Bill Carlson’s toilet seats – describes a phenomenon I experienced when working on Unilever Ice Cream. Launching a flavoured version of a popular classic ice cream would dramatically increase sales – of the standard ice cream.

    This is the ‘new news’ phenomenon mentioned by Ashely C. I sometimes think that both manufacturers AND retailers demand that we only spend money advertising something ‘new’ to the consumer. This results in range proliferation and wasted resource managing the ‘tail’. When really, we should find a new and interesting way to cut through and remind consumers about their standard favourite – white toilet seats and vanilla ice cream.

  9. Roman says

    the cartoon is the picture of human degradation back to the cave, down to quadraped levels of existence given the amount of energy required to wedge thru the mass of new offerings with bright ribbons reducing the humans to consumerist animals.

    the name of the game is the long tail-going from mass production to engineering personalized goods snd services. Bob or Mike or Diana they all yearn for their own personal size shape and color and product name. You want an iphone in your own multicolored striped rosy case not a black or white one hence tbe mind boggling offer on apple shelves.

    however mass production era marketers misfire for they produce more mass products vs more customized or customizable products. they fail to listen to the voice of customer, VoC, as simple as that.

    Oyez, oyez…!

  10. says

    Hi all,

    Fascinating comments this week, many thanks!

    At the consumer level, there’s a continuum of having too little choice (the white toilet seat) versus too much choice (the paradox of choice: ). As marketers, we need to understand that continuum for our particular categories, and champion the consumers’ interests there.

    This week’s cartoon goes to Ashley C. She raises the important point that the root cause is not hubristic marketing, but the very real-world pressure of making sales projections and “new news” pressure from retailers. That’s the game we all have to play. It’s a tricky playing field, and opens up opportunities for brands like “Help”.

    I find it interesting that Apple excels at delivering “new news” but their portfolios is also one of the least cluttered. There are as good at culling as launching new items. I wonder if Apple played by the rules of many grocery brands, would they still have the Newton shelved next to the iPhone. I admire their ability to keep a simple, clean (but always new) portfolio.

    Many thanks!


  11. Tessa Stuart says

    Hi Tom,

    Great post. I’ve worked for innocent drinks on a number of new ideas, but if, even after a year’s development and a lot of sunk costs, they can’t make something that tastes appreciably healthier or better in a new category, (and often retailers’ shelf life demands scupper lovely products) then they don’t.

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