(Reuters) - With the U.S. economic recovery struggling to take hold, household goods companies are betting consumers will pay for the latest versions of paper products, shampoo and baby carrots -- wrapped in the safety of proven brand names.
Super-strong versions of Bounty paper towels are on tap, as are new flavors of Oscar Mayer bologna, all in an effort to squeeze out fresh sales from old brands.
Consumers might be cutting back on major purchases in light of higher payroll taxes and gasoline prices, but they still need the basics and turn to brands they know. That is why companies ranging from Procter & Gamble Co (PG.N) and Colgate-Palmolive Co (CL.N) to Kraft Foods Group Inc (KRFT.O) and Campbell Soup Co (CPB.N) unveiled updated versions of existing products at the recent Consumer Analyst Group of New York conference.
"They're playing it safe in a tough consumer environment, which probably reduces any major risk for investors and for themselves," Credit Suisse analyst Michael Steib said of the household products makers' push.
It takes less effort to promote brands that shoppers already know, as opposed to something completely new. Companies are all too familiar with that bumpy road.
In 2011, 81 percent of the hundreds of newly launched consumer packaged goods failed to hit $7.5 million in first-year sales, according to industry research firm SymphonyIRI. The top-selling products of 2011 used existing brand names, according to the firm's "Pacesetters" list.
A Brand Keys survey of 39,000 American adults in January showed that goods such as P&G's Pampers diapers and Colgate toothpaste had high brand loyalty.
But the value of brands in areas such as facial moisturizer, hair color, shampoo, conditioner and laundry detergent has declined to the point where shoppers make their selections based on convenience and not loyalty, Brand Keys President Robert Passikoff said.
P&G, the world's largest household products company, is one of several manufacturers launching goods under existing brands. Its lineup includes several "change innovations," or fresh products that build on established brands, such as last year's single-dose Tide Pods laundry detergent.
Companies such as P&G, Colgate, Energizer Holdings Inc (ENR.N) and Newell Rubbermaid Inc (NWL.N) are poised to use funds from restructurings announced since early 2012 to spend more on marketing their latest goods.
"They probably feel better about the consumer, and therefore think that new products can actually succeed," said JP Morgan analyst John Faucher.
Marketing spending continues to rise, but budgets can be kept in check as companies take advantage of digital and social media that cost less than traditional television and print campaigns and make concerted choices about where to spend.
Kraft, for example, said it increased its marketing spending from about $5 million per product launch to about $25 million per big bet. For the MiO water enhancer line it launched in 2011 and continues to expand, it spent over $50 million on advertising and consumer support.
"It looks like there are a lot of plans to spend behind the innovation once you actually put it out there ... to really nurture it out of the gate for the first two or three years," said Wells Fargo food industry analyst John Baumgartner.
SAME BRANDS, NEW FLAVORS
Companies are trying to tweak some products to provide more for the same money. Clorox Co (CLX.N), for example, put grooves into its Kingsford charcoal, which cut the weight of the product by 7 percent but added surface area and therefore improved the performance even while reducing Clorox's materials costs.
This year, even Kraft's Oscar Mayer bologna is getting a flavor reboot, with a bacon-infused variety as well as a jalapeno version. Campbell Soup is testing Bolthouse Farms Baby Carrot Shakedowns, which feature salsa, ranch or chili lime flavoring for consumers to sprinkle on the carrots.
P&G is updating its Bounty paper towel line, bringing out a new cloth-like Bounty DuraTowel, which it claims leaves surfaces three times cleaner than if they were wiped with a used dishcloth. It is making its mainstream Bounty twice as absorbent and the lower-priced Bounty Basic 50 percent stronger.
Clorox Chief Executive Don Knauss said his company made a point of making product development part of each brand's push more than two years ago, when basic categories such as home care were facing declines.
Kraft, meanwhile, is fleshing out a "good, better, best" strategy for its products and emphasizing the lower and upper tiers, as middle-class consumers are getting squeezed.
That means new kinds of basic Kool-Aid Jammers drinks for $1.79, as well as Capri Sun Super V drinks, which have vegetable juice and cost $2.99. New flavors for Kraft's 99-cent cup of Velveeta Shells and Cheese include Queso Blanco. It will also add to the Velveeta Cheesy Skillets meals line that costs $3.49.
Whatever forms the new products take, executives say companies need to spend their way out of the malaise.
"Companies' success is much more dependent on what they do as opposed to the environment they're in," Newell CEO Mike Polk said in an interview. "You've got to adjust your agenda to the reality of the moment you're in."
(This story has been fixed to delete an extraneous comma in the eighth paragraph)