Editorial: Tropic Thunder, Tropicana’s Juicy Branding Blunder

Who Owns a Brand, The Company or the People?

Ed Foster, Advertising

BOSTON – If you have been in the juice aisle lately, you’ve most likely noticed a quick change operation going on at the Tropicana shelves. It’s not just a lesson in the new world of brand management, but it’s also a case study on the power that social media has unleashed on brand loyalists (and how not to do it).

The company introduced a new packaging concept designed by a very well respected New York-based branding ‘expert’ whose firm charges over a million dollars to conduct branding and rebranding efforts. Unfortunately rather than helping revive sales, the effort made sales plummet. This is the perfect Harvard Business Review type case study on the lack of communication to a company’s own brand loyalist community. Here is arrogance at its greatest…and its worst…a company and a branding expert that thought it was in control of its brand. When in reality the voice of the brand community – strengthened by the power of social media — created a world-wide rage against the packaging, which was quickly pulled off shelves. Here’s what happened.

Topicana unveiled its new packaging on January 1, 2009. The new design was described by consumers as ‘bland’, ‘non-premium’ and ‘generic.’ According to AdAge, sales of the Tropicana Pure Premium line after its ‘repackaging’ dropped 20 percent between Jan. 1 and Feb. 22, costing the brand tens of millions of dollars. On Feb. 23, the company announced they had decided to listen to their consumers and completely scrapped the new packaging, designed by branding expert Peter Arnell. The new packaging had been on the market less than two months. On top of that, it looks like Tropicana’s competitors benefited from the fiasco.

The real issue with Tropicana’s re-branding is Why did it fail? The important lesson to learn here when working with a widely popular and established brand is to respect its brand loyalists. Consider that the ‘brand loyalists own the brand’ (not the other way around) and start there.

New Coke Parallel

Remember what happened with Coke? Coke showed everyone what not to do when they launched New Coke in 1985. The reaction to a newly branded and differently flavored Coke was so overwhelmingly negative (despite taste tests, research and focus groups!) and the product was pulled. Classic was back, because Classic is what people want. They come to expect the taste of Coke to be, well, the taste of Coke.

The concept of brand loyalty is nothing new. Brands live and die by it. Nobody has a problem with slight improvements or tweaks to a brand. In fact, that is a healthy part of a brand’s evolution. And when done right it’s usually part of a larger marketing effort which boosts sales and strengthens the brand.

But changes to a brand – whether it’s Coke, Tropicana, or another product — must be done with great respect and care. The whole marketing paradigm has shifted and we now have to listen as much as we speak. It has never been easier for companies to reach out and communicate with brand audiences due to social media. So the bigger question is. . . how could Tropicana have missed?

How could one of the leading companies with one of the most recognizable brands in the world have missed the opportunity to listen and learn from their community? How could they have not leveraged the power of social media and not have done a better job? Especially with the precedent that was set by Coca-Cola [New Coke] in 1985 in the same vertical, beverages?

With the advent of social media — blogs, communities, Twitter, Facebook and the like, reactions both good and bad will be known in hours if not minutes. Motrin learned this with their online advertising fiasco – where they nearly miscalculated the reactions of so many stay-at-home moms that they caused a boycott. Motrin posted their ads on a Friday and when they came back to work on Monday they were apologizing to the mommy blogging world and pulled the ads.

Slow Reaction from Pepsi

Why in fact did it even take until Monday for the company to react? This is now a 24-hour, 7 day work week…..all amidst an ADD generation that is putting thoughts together in 140 characters or less on 20 different subjects or topics an hour.

In this landscape, bad reactions to a product or company are the equivalent of a brush fire with gale force winds on land that has been bone dry for six months. Motrin, honestly, waited until Monday most likely because it was the first time the executives involved could meet face to face. Next time they might consider a teleconference Saturday morning to quickly quell the storm. But that’s another story.

In Tropicana’s case, all you can do is back away, or pull the design and apologize. And perhaps bow to the brand loyalists and let them have a voice.

What’s more amazing is that the branding expert, Peter Arnell, isn’t admitting he made a mistake. In fact, he has gone on the road to defend himself. Being arrogant in the face of a very angry brand community isn’t smart and does not help Tropicana either. He might consider protecting his own brand by making a PR-friendly statement and being a bit more humble.

Not only has he cost Tropicana $33 million in sales losses over the two months of the launch, as well as the design and manufacturing costs. But now they have an arrogant vendor who says things like…”I’m incredibly surprised by the reaction,” and, “I’m glad Tropicana is getting this kind of attention.”

Are you kidding?

So the marketing world doesn’t live in the real world. Or so is too often the case. Here are a couple of things to think about when hiring a company to look at, tweak, redo, or refresh your brand.

  1. Work with people to develop or refresh your brand who respect the brand and its following. Be wary of someone who wants to make themselves the center of attention. Go for ego-less branders. The good ones have no egos.
  2. Use social media to your advantage both in testing and daily communications with your audience. The results of any marketing or branding effort should never be a surprise to you or the brand community you serve.
  3. Never forget that brands are owned by the community of brand loyalists that buy and use them every day.
  4. If you haven’t figured it out by now that the ‘old rules’ don’t apply to marketing anymore, you need to start today. Have a dialogue with your community of loyalists. It’s no longer about you screaming at your audiences with reach and frequency.
  5. With all the tools at our fingertips and the historical mistakes of companies like Coke, this should never have happened!

First and foremost – remember that your brand belongs to your customer.

Editor’s Note:

Born in Belfast, Ireland and raised outside of Philadelphia, Ed Foster’s childhood focus was on being a Navy fighter pilot and exploring the world. After six years in the Navy, living his dream, Ed went on to pursue his next passion – design. To the design world he took with him the lessons he had learned in the Navy, of producing excellent work and assembling the best team to do the job.

Ed founded Foster Design Group in 1984. After ten years of building a reputation of providing high quality and strategic design, Ed turned his focus to overall branding. Ed believes that, “design with no strategy is nothing but wrapping paper – it’s the substance within that matters.”

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