“When you are out of Vanilla, you are out of business!”

Well to start with, this is not an essay focused on ice
cream, or for that matter specifically whether you do or do not like vanilla
ice cream.   This story is about
understanding what your core product/flavor/sku is in the eyes of your
consumers, and working hard to NEVER be “out of stock” (oos) on that item.

This story emanates from the late 80’s, when I was working
for Kraft foods and had been promoted to the role of brand manager, Breyers Ice
Cream.  A “sweet” role to be certain,
tasting plant samples, competitive offerings, and new flavor formulations were
a tough daily routine.  Other than
driving my cholesterol through the roof, the job/role was awesome.  Breyers’ was the flagship brand of our
division, a historic ice cream brand from the 1860’s and I had the chance to
work on it’s expansion into the western states and to launch Breyers Light, the
first premium low-fat ice cream; a great role as I said, and a spot where I
learned a lot early in my career.

Early in the job, I went on a “market visit” into New
England where I toured grocery stores with our sales manager in that
region.  Bob was a veteran of the ice
cream business, having worked for Kraft and it’s predecessor National Dairies
fro over 20 years.  Here I was, 3-4 years
out of business school, heading into the market with the “old time sales
guy.”  Again, a scene ripe for insights
and lessons for sure!

I remember distinctly being with Bob on a Monday morning in
Boston, hitting a Stop & Shop grocery store early that day.  As we got to the freezer case, heavily picked
over after a weekend sale, he asked me what I saw and “what it meant.”  After a few meaningless mumbles on my end, he
jumped in to note that the weekend sale had driven a lot of sales, but at that
moment we were “out of business.” 
Clearly I didn’t have a clue what he meant.  While the freezer case was a mess, I saw
plenty of chocolate, strawberry, mint chocolate chip, cherry vanilla, and mint
chocolate chip (a personal fave) to name just a few.  This was the moment where he shared, without a
lot of critique for you’re truly, that “when you are out strawberry, you are
out of stock, but when you are out of Vanilla, you are out of business.”

While a “light bulb moment,” I clearly needed a bit more
explanation.  He shared that with vanilla
being 30+% of the overall ice cream category, and 40+% for Breyers at that
time, not having enough vanilla on hand was a big deal.  Where you ran oos on other flavors, shoppers
may switch their choice, and possibly “fill in” with good old Breyers
vanilla.  The trouble is the opposite
isn’t true!  When you ran oos on Breyers
vanilla, shoppers wouldn’t substitute with another flavor, they would shift
brands and grab their “next favorite” vanilla. 
Being oos on vanilla meant being out of business!

This lesson has stuck with me now for almost 30 years and
has come up a lot lately in discussions with friends & clients in other
businesses.  In the consumer goods
landscape, we have seen a wild explosion of flavors / line extensions across a typical
grocery store.  In a recent conversation
with a client and friend, we were talking about a situation where when they ran
an ad/promotion on their products, the best selling flavor/sku would sell out
first, with the slower selling flavors “clogging up the shelves” and really not
moving.  I blurted out the Breyers
Vanilla story and reminded them that when they were out of some crazy flavor
they were just oos, but when they were out of their core flavor/sku they were
“out of business.”  Whether your business
is juices, soups, salsas, dressings, cookies, hummus, or ice cream, this
concept is fundamental across the board.
All of this focus on your core item/flavor/sku does not mean
to abandon innovation.  Quite the
contrary!  Innovation is the lifeblood of
any business, and I do believe the adage to “innovate or die.”  Work tirelessly and stay committed to a innovation
process, exploring “over the horizon” and creating what might be your best seller
in the future!  With that commitment to
innovation in place, NEVER lose track of where you are today.
Here are a few suggestions on how to take action on this
concept. Regardless of your business/industry/category, work hard to see your
product line through the eyes and the wallets of your consumers.  What is your central item/sku/flavor and just
how “substitutable” is it really?? . 
Insure that you have a broad offering of your items/skus/flavors
available for consumers but don’t sacrifice your core franchise. 

Be certain that you still have a few packages of your core
item, your “Breyers Vanilla,” on hand on the Monday morning after a wildly
successful weekend sale.