Diet Marketing: I'll Have A Chalupa and an Atkins Fries

As they might say in the grocery business, 7 - Eleven owns the "high-margin, high inventory turnover retail institution" corner of the market. Which means it shouldn't be much of a surprise that the world's largest convenience store chain is jumping on the Atkins trendwagon. Concerned about your weight - but not quite concerned enough to make sensible choices when shopping at the grocery store? Stop at 7 - Eleven for Atkins Bakery bread, Atkins Crunchers chips, Morning Start bars, and Advantage meal replacement bars and shakes.

"Atkins is long past being a fad," said Kenneth Fries, 7-Eleven category manager for snacks. "What first was considered a fad and then a trend has now crossed over to become a lifestyle for millions of people. An estimated 25-30 million are following some kind of low-carb weight-management program. Fortunately, now you can have your cake and bread, and eat it too."

That's right - the spokesman for the new Atkins menu is called Fries.

But the Atkins diet isn't just causing heart palpitations among convenience store marketers - imagine the stress over at the American Institute of Baking! People just aren't buying rye, hot cross buns, wonder bread, croissants or bagels anymore. The most recent Fortune discusses the impact of the new low-carb diets on everyone's favourite sandwich component: After peaking at 147 pounds per person in 1997, U.S. consumption of wheat flour fell to about 137 pounds last year. Bread baskets in restaurants across the U.S. remain unmolested.

But what can stop this decline? Milk, pork, beef have their tag lines. Radio, print, outdoor and TV campaigns remind you to pick some up on your way home, as part of a balanced diet. The industry is worried enough that they recently convened the first meeting of the National Bread Leadership Council.

Their first strategy has been to work along some tried-and-true public relations principles. Perhaps a catchy tag line would bring people back to bread, an audience member suggests. "We're on that. We have 'Whole grains at every meal,' " replies Kirk O'Donnell of the American Institute of Baking. Mmmm! Crunchy bread! Maybe with some muesli and yogurt!

The NBLC also released a survey that revealed a majority of Americans have negative impressions of the Atkins diet and the impact of carbs in your diet. They've simply got to correct the "crisis of consumer misperception," as one NBLC spokeswoman puts it. Ah. The old "let me speak slowly so you'll understand me" gambit. Always proven to shift consumer opinion and preferences.

Who immediately comes to mind when you think of bread products? Fred the Baker, sweating over a tray of glazed treats at your local Dunkin Donuts (retired, by the way)? Betty Crocker? Aunt Jemima? Hmm. A perception problem definitely exists.

Maybe the bread industry should confront this challenge with a combination of marketing, public relations and old-fashioned hucksterism. After all, 7 - Eleven isn't facing down an industry-rattling change in consumer attitudes. They're being opportunistic, seizing onto an opportunity to establish a position in a lucrative niche market. And they've done it by identifying products and tastes that would appeal to their traditional clientele.

Really, this is an old lesson. How did the Kellogg's convince thousands to eat the baked corn flakes they developed at their health retreat? The first impulse to market was demand from customers - then they built demand among the wider population through gimmicks, public relations and old-fashioned marketing.

Subway has recognized the challenge as well. They've spent years convincing North Americans that submarine sandwiches full of processed meats are "healthy foods," but I was a little surprised to see their recent ads for Atkins Wraps. Other companies are preparing Atkins Bakery Bread, and low-carb desserts. One ingenious entrepreneur even marketed low-carb, low-fat doughnuts (he's going to jail now).

How's bread holding up? "We don't promote ourselves as well as the beef and dairy folks," says O'Donnell later on in the hallway. "It bothers me a little." (In case you didn't notice, November was National Bread Month.)

Update: Seth Godin just published an anecdote about meeting up with an Atkins devotee at a grocery store - who didn't pick up the Atkins chips because they had too many carbs. He notes that the power of the idea - that carbs are bad - in this case outweighed even the influence of the Atkins advertising wave.