25 Years of New Product Winners in CPG Reveals Cultural Snapshots

By Joan Driggs and Larry Levin, IRI


Sometimes, anthropology can be as messy as its cousin archeology, requiring digging tools and resulting in muddy, bloody knees. At IRI, we have been “digging” and tracking the most successful new CPG product launches (we call them the New Product Pacesetters) for 25 years. We decided to go for a dig through our digital archives for a detailed view of the top CPG food and non-food products sold through multi-outlet channels during the past quarter century.

Reviewing the top products of their time is a fun throwback to the period in which these products both piqued consumer curiosity and peaked sales potential. We see long-forgotten and still-with-us diet trends, including fat-free (mid-1990s) and low-carb (early 2000s); marketing terms adopted as product names, such as “Ultra” (1995); the rise of recessionary behaviors, including small brands ascending to Pacesetter status (2010s); and our unending desire for indulgence (no surprise, that spanned all the years!).

The Big Dig

Big brands dominated for the first decade of New Product Pacesetters. It’s interesting to see where these big companies are now – sadly, some have gone bankrupt and many of these brands are now under a different corporate umbrella. The marketplace and how products were marketed also marks a different time. In pre-digital 1995 – IRI’s first year of New Product Pacesetters – mass marketing was the big, one-trick pony. Companies poured their marketing budgets into campaigns that featured one or two TV commercials, print ads and radio spots, as well as couponing or other promotions to drive awareness, consideration and trial.

Top sellers in 1995 reveal we were at the peak of the fat-free craze. Nabisco’s SnackWell’s and Fat-free Newtons; Weight Watchers Smart Ones from H. J. Heinz; Nestlé Sweet Success Weight Control; and Conagra’s Healthy Choice Thick and Hearty Soup were among the most successful CPG products that year. Bagged salads were also big sellers, including Fresh Express (Bruce Church) and Dole Refrigerated salads.

1995 was also an “ultra” great year for innovation! Among non-food Pacesetters, seven of the top 10 included the term “ultra” in their brand names: Huggies Ultra Trim Baby Step, Ultra Downy fabric softener, Ultra Tide laundry detergent, Basic Ultra Lights cigarettes, Ultra Era laundry detergent, Ultra Cheer Free laundry detergent and Ultra Snuggle fabric softener. Clearly, we were a population that wanted the best results. When we include Whisk Power Plus, seven of the top 10 non-food Pacesetters were also laundry products.

Jumping ahead to 1999, consumers still hadn’t given up low-fat completely. Remember Frito Wow! chips? But we were also gravitating to more indulgent products, including Oscar Mayer Lunchables All Star Burgers, Red Baron Bake to Rise frozen pizza, Edy’s Homemade ice cream and Doritos 3D’s. Even breakfast cereals were indulgent, including Post Oreo O’s.

Non-food Pacesetters of 1999 remind us how far we are in 2020 from our pre-digital world: Two camera films (remember those rolls of emulsion-coated plastic that went into cameras to be turned into photographs?), Kodak Max and Polaroid Platinum, exposed great top-selling products for two companies that are now extinct or reimagined.

By 2004, we’d migrated away from fat-free to low-carb. Breyers CarbSmart ice cream was the No. 1 Food Pacesetter that year. Soft drinks were also very much in favor, including Pepsi Vanilla, Diet Coke with Lime, Sprite Remix and Mountain Dew Live Wire. Throw in Smirnoff Twisted, and five of the Top 10 Pacesetters were beverages. Consumers were thirsty for variety! 

Non-food Pacesetters over the years saw a shift from prescription to over-the-counter medications, including Prilosec OTC, a trend that has also continued over the years, and especially in 2008 with ZYRTEC Allergy Relief, Alli weight loss and MiraLAX laxatives. 2004 also saw a rise in at-home “professional” products, including L’Oréal Dermo-Expertise and Crest Night Effects. These products would make a bigger leap after the 2008 recession.

Small but Mighty

The recession of 2008-2010 not only inspired a list of DIY CPG products, but it also brought more out-of-home brands into the home. P.F. Chang’s Home Menu was the top product of 2011, as consumers continued to forgo restaurant dining but were willing to trade up at the grocery store for a better in-home eating experience. The recession also sparked the emergence of small brands to Pacesetter status. In 2012, there were about 15 small brands in the total Pacesetters roster. In seven short years, companies with sales of less than $1 billion now account for more than half of all Pacesetter products.

These small brands, such as Chobani – which has had a Pacesetter product every year from 2012 to 2019! – had a distinct point of difference. Even as marketing budgets grew, these brands succeeded by staying focused on their audiences and remaining true to their points of differentiation. Red Bull is another perennial favorite, emerging as a lifestyle brand that has focused more on sponsorship of active events than traditional media.

Going Forward in a New World

New Product Pacesetters provide a vivid shelf-level view of where we were at a point in time. What products were you buying that made your life better? Were you focused on laundry care for your family, or were you experimenting with extreme snack flavors and new soft drinks?

We’re now in a new recession, one induced by a global pandemic, and we expect to see this reality reflected in future New Product Pacesetter rosters. But we believe that what will make products successful in the future will be similar to what made them successful in the past – connecting with consumers. They will fill specific needs of their time, from personal and home care to satisfying our sweet tooth and making us the meal-time heroes for family and loved ones.  

We had fun digging through these “Kodak” moments in American CPG history. No dirty knees, but if we did get “ultra” dirty, we’d know which laundry products are the best-sellers.


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