There won’t be blood — unless you mess with a great brand.

Wandering through a giant grocery store all alone is a magical experience. My husband, who usually does the food shopping, is home and nervous as hell. He REALLY doesn’t like setting me loose in a grocery store, because apparently I buy strange things. 

Not true. I buy interesting things. A can of organic pink beans here or a box of Columbian red hot seasonings there adds emotional color to my cart. Certain items strum my heartstrings because they are unique, or exotic, or ethnic, or have pretty labels. There’s a special place in our kitchen cupboards for my finds, although most linger in the dark, unopened, for years

I have his shopping list, a transparent and shameless attempt to keep me on track. Heinz Ketchup is his first and last item but I really like ketchup so off I go.

Seductive boxes, bottles, and jars whiz by my cart whispering. “Buy me! No, buy me!” Ignoring their pleas, I ask for directions to the condiment aisle. It’s far, far away but I will try to get there without any impulse stops. I am strong. 

Wandering down, I do find myself eyeballing the relishes and mustards for something a bit exotic but soon see a sea of red as the many brands of ketchup vie for my hard-earned money. 

As we al know, Heinz bottles can be upside down in your refrigerator “after opening”? No palm pounding to get the stuff out as your burgers get cold. Working with gravity is so clever and such a nice, outside-the-bottle brand feature. I reach for a bottle but… 

Wait, what? The mouth-watering brand words, Heinz Ketchup, have been replaced with two new words. 

Tomato Blood

Picture this: All alone, stacked neatly from front to back, sit ten bottles labeled “Tomato Blood”. The shelves on either side are empty. The Tomato Blood’s neighbors had probably sold out for fear that all ketchup would soon be named something in a similar vein.

What is Tomato Blood? My stomach heaves as I reach for a bottle out of morbid curiosity. I can’t go home empty-handed because our cheeseburgers are waiting, fresh off the grill, wrapped in soft buns. How odd they would look without thick ketchup squishing out the sides. How sad to not have them crowned in this all-American sauce, its flavor so integral to the experience.

I placed a bottle carefully into my cart. Right before I put it back on the shelf.

I don’t know about you but my brain doesn’t like an unfinished story or the lack of a good explanation. If either of these are missing, I just come up with my own plotline to fill the void. That day, right there in that aisle, I “decided” that Tomato Blood was not real ketchup. I imagined a sadder version, perhaps devoid of sugar and all the other delicious ingredients of the authentic Heinz ketchup recipe. 

Turns out, the story I had invented was wrong. It seems that Tomato Blood has exactly the same ingredients as its blood brother. I know it’s true because I found it on the internet. Just Google Tomato Blood and you will see that, sure enough, it is an honest-to-God, brand extension. But instead of having different ingredients, Tomato Blood is EXACTLY the same formula as the traditional Heinz Ketchup. 

Digging deeper, it seems that back in October of 2021, someone at the Heinz company heard through the tomato vine that Heinz Ketchup was often used to bloody up gory Halloween costumes. So, Heinz decided to encourage the behavior by filling some bottles with the same ingredients but changing the name to Tomato Blood. Here is what CHEW BOOM had to say:

“Heinz Releases Limited-Edition Tomato Blood ketchup For Halloween 2021. While Tomato Blood ketchup is the same as the brand’s signature ketchup, it comes in a special limited-edition bottle . . . You can find it on the shelves of retailers nationwide.”

At first, I thought the Halloween idea was cute. But, eww. I could not shake off the image of Halloween costumes covered in gooey blobs of ketchup, staining furniture, attracting flies, and smelling like a 3 AM diner. Gross. And, like an annoying My Pillow commercial, the more I tried to forget the disgusting images, the more they kept following me around. My mother’s Mother’s Day Magazine vision of Heinz Ketchup was replaced with blood and gore. It was brand depravity at its finest!

Why mess with a great brand?

Heinz first introduced “Catsup” in 1876 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It is now the best-selling brand of ketchup in the world. Heinz spent almost 150 years convincing people like me that Heinz Ketchup needs to be in our kitchens. 

In all fairness, Heinz probably believed their Tomato Blood extension would be off the shelves by the end of October. But no. I found it on the shelves at the end of December, right smack in the middle of the Holidays, when people are feeling all lovey-dovey and sentimental and junk — certainly no longer in the mood for ghosts and goblins with bloody knives sticking out of their bellies. 

Long story short, Heinz lost me as a customer that day (at least for now). Even though this happened a few weeks ago, I still can’t get the images of that label out of my head. I didn’t buy the Tomato Blood, and with no other options, I ended up picking up a bottle ofTRADER JOE’S Organic Ketchup on my way home.

Now, I don’t think that Heinz intended for me to think about all of this as I picked up a bottle of their 150-year-old ketchup recipe. Was it really worth alienating me just to be seasonally clever?

As strategic website designers, we at Chroma Sites talk about branding a lot. While we rarely do website and online marketing for food products, my sticky story applies to every small business. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself when considering a shift away from your typical branding.

  1. Are you thinking about incorporating fads and gimmicks that could make your loyal fans cringe? 
  2. Will you be adding something that may only appeal to those who actually buy your “ketchup” for what it is NOT? 
  3. Are your brand extensions a net positive or negative for your overall brand? 
  4. Is your promotion attracting the people who will stick with you through thick and thin? 
  5. Is your publicity stunt a buzz word or a buzz saw? 

There is a fine line between differentiation and being completely outrageous. Your website needs to be different in order to stand out among all the other websites on the internet. However, you don’t want to go so far, and make it so jarring, that it alienates your core group of customers.

As marketers, we know how easy it is to dilute a great brand. Be mindful of how far you can bend the image of who you are, before it breaks. There is nothing wrong with sticking with what works. And, if you need a good listener, call Chroma Sites before you do something stupid.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Heinz