Tropicana: when CCOs go wrong

You've heard about the PepsiCo debacle?  It will be a case study and a cautionary tale for many years to come. 
In the apt words of Stuart Elliott,

It took 24 years, but PepsiCo now has its own version of New Coke.

The basic details: Sometime in 2008, PepsiCo Americas CEO Massimo d'Amore decided to rebrand the Pepsi, Gatorade, Tropicana and Mountain Dew. 

It's epic error.  It represents perhaps the largest and most cavilier destruction of brand value we will ever see.

I want to concentrate on Tropicana.  A new Tropicana package was launched in January (package on right) to replace a package of long standing (on left).  This was then withdrawn in late February.  But not before sales had fallen 20%.  Consumers were furious. 

So what was PepsiCo thinking?  Here's Peter Arnell, the man D'Amore asked to do the Tropicana package design. 

The objective was very, very clearly laid out.  We needed to rejuvenate, reengineer, rethink, reparticipate in popular culture. 

On balance, this sounds like a laudatory end.  Of course a brand should be in touch with popular culture.

But let's look at what Peter Arnell, acting as Pepsi's unofficial Chief Culture Officer, thinks this means.   His first act of office, apparently, was to embark upon what BusinessWeek calls a "five-week world tour of trendy design houses."

This is where he went searching for culture?  In design houses?  Dude.  A CCO is not just responsible for culture as defined by designers.  He or she is also responsible for all the rest of American culture.  And he won't find this exhaustively represented in design houses.  Indeed, the rest of American culture is, I would argue, sometimes systematically excluded from the design houses. 

Let me say something about the people who care about the Tropicana package, the ones who rebelled against Arnell's innovation.  

American householders are at the moment caught in the three little storms that we know make up a perfect storm. 

Storm One: They are raising 2 kids, running a home, and struggling to achieve sufficiency for the family.  By itself, this would be a tough assignment.  Americans make it tougher by routinely changing what counts as a good "parent," a good "child," a good "family."  No sooner than they have worked out a pretty good facsimile of the American family than Dr. Phil begins to beam them new instructions. 

Storm Two: American householders are wondering if the present downturn will cost one or perhaps all of the incomes on which the family now relies.  The anxiety is palpable.  It's audible.  It's there all the time. 

Storm Three: American householders are trapped in a new health regime, one that forces them to give up the sugar, salt, fat, richness and gusto that makes the meal rich and satisfying.  At the very moment, moms (mostly) want to make great meals to make great families, to distract everyone from the crisis at hand, to insist on the things that matter and not "all that other stuff," the health profession is denying some of the very things that makes a meal wonderful.

The old Tropicana package was a welcome presence in this household.  It was familiar, cheerful, good hearted.  Sitting on the breakfast, it was a little like a light house, a symbol of some of the things that makes mornings in America a good way to break the fast and prepare for the day.

But who cares about the old package?  Who cares about the American consumer?  Pepsi's has an idea!  It wants to "rejuvenate, reengineer, rethink, reparticipate in popular culture" and if this means turning out something that looks like generic packaging, well, too bad.  In an act of marketing malpractice, Pepsi managed to reach into the American breakfast and diminish it.  It managed to reach into this precious occasion and make it poorer and more paltry.  Pepsi did this deliberately…to itself…and the American consumer…with design. 

If you want to "reparticipate" in popular culture, well, you have your work cut out for you.  Going to design houses, that's a good idea.  (Peter, you can sit around with other designers and congratulate one another on having really cool glasses that only 1% of 1% of Americans would ever consider wearing.)  And then, well, really, why not get out of the design houses into the lives and the homes and the kitchens of the other Americans?

The problem is simple.  When Arnell thinks design, he thinks cool.  When we ask him to redesign a Tropicana package, he's going to bless it with notions of cool now circulating in his own and other design houses. 

The trouble is that culture is only marginally about cool.  Cool may be the most active, the most talked about, the most flattering part of culture, but it is also a relatively small and evanescent part of culture.  Let's call it 20%. 

When you are told to put the brand in touch with popular culture, touring design houses won't do it.  Really, what you want to do, Peter, is talk to the owner-operators of this culture, Americans…living by the millions…out there…

Peter, here's the thing.  It's not about you.  It's not what you think is hip and happening.  It's not about cool.  It's not about New York City or design houses or startling images of the future, or breathtaking mastery of the design vocabulary, or breakthroughs that reinvent the brand.

It's about Americans at their breakfast table.  How can this have escaped you?

Reference

Elliott, Stuart.  2009.  Tropicana Discovers Some Buyers Are Passionate About Packaging.  New York Times.   February 22, 2009.
here.

Helm, Burt.  2009.  Blowing Up Pepsi.  BusinessWeek.  April 27, 2009. 

Levins, Hoaq.  2009.  Peter Arnell Explains Failed Tropicana Package Design.  Ad Age.  February 26, 2009.  (AdAge appears to have removed this and the next article from its website.)

Zmuda, Natalie.  2009.  Tropicana Line's Sales Plunge 20% Post-Rebranding.  Ad Age.  April 02, 2009. 

24 thoughts on “Tropicana: when CCOs go wrong”

  1. Bingo. It’s interesting. I had a discussion with a marketing consultant about this piece of “marketing malpractice” and she assured me that Pepsi had made a huge mistake by “caving in” to the outcry around this incident. I just nodded and listened to this little voice in my head saying: “OK…well…lots of luck with that approach.” Those three storms are dead on.

  2. it’s interesting to me to observe how often calling-in-designers equates to a surrender of individiuality and a end-product that looks like everyone else’s.

    Why is this so? Perhaps the way that the brand new design is new but also, well, familiar reassures the customer that his choice is a safe and wise one, and gives him the courage to go ahead.

    I see this at the retail level in interior design: the customer will normally say that she has called in a designer in order to creae somehing fresh and different, while gesturing expansively over a new living room that looks eerily like everybody else.

    Tropican – the new packaging reminded me of the OJ at my Waitrose.

    http://www.ocado.com/webshop/product/Florida-Orange-Juice-Waitrose/12636011?parentContainer=SEARCHorange%20juice

  3. Indeed. Since when do we want our orange juice to be aspirational?

    But I do think Tropicana stands to benefit in its response to consumer outcry. Maybe no one in the initial focus groups expressed any particular bond with the straw in the orange, or maybe they weren’t asked, but certainly Tropicana is doing the right thing by responding to those expressing such sentiments after the fact. Not only do they know they’re doing what their customers want, but they’ve engaged in dialog with the most important group in their world. If they’re really smart, they’ll keep it up.

  4. Again I must call attention to the tension between Grant’s argument that a) brands should be “disinterested” and not pander by being likable and b) that all branding exercises should follow from a detailed anthropological analysis of what moves the customer.

    One can attempt to resolve this tension by stressing that the non-pandering brand is supposed to worry about how it makes the customer feel rather than about being likable and that this requires cultural research. The problem with this resolution is that the distinction between customer perception and brand likability dissolves in practice. Which brands do we not like? The ones that don’t make us feel good.

    My take on the Tropicana episode is that the new design is not at all edgy and cool even if that were at all suitable for a breakfast product (which I doubt along with Grant). It looks very generic and boring. The old design is kind of spunky and quirky and exuberant. Pepsi’s move reminds me of when Holiday Inn ditched its classic loud sparkly roadside signs for totally generic ones in the 1970s.

    BTW, I saw a redesigned Pepsi can and it was pretty cool.

  5. It seems as though you’re arguing that with a bit of consumer research, it would have revealed that the former packaging resonated with consumers more…are you suggesting that Arnell didn’t do any quant/qual surveys on new design?

    And as bullshit as Arnell’s thoughts are about “energizing” packaging, so too is the idea that the previous packaging was “familiar, cheerful, good hearted.” Sales dropped because of the economy and blurry customer selection, not because of some emotional blunder by moving the orange and changing the font.

  6. I remember when the new packaging came out, I was in the grocery store, standing in front of the orange juice cooler, staring for what must have been three or four minutes looking for the Tropicana with lots of pulp. There should have been a little green accent and the orange with the straw in it. As it happened, the entire cooler I was staring into was full of Tropicana, but I didn’t realize it — I thought they’d changed the cooler over to store brand. I figured it out sooner or later, but it really was disconcerting.

  7. grant

    this is a tragic story. it really is – and, as expected, you’ve nailed the appropriate sentiment. it is always a mistake to associate design with brand, and yet it is into these hands that we too often place their future for no other reason than that we can.

    i am, however, simultaneously inspired by the clarity with which brand asserted its own sense of justice on the whole affair. things are as they should be and the guilty parties are getting their comeuppance.

  8. It is highly doubtful that they did not bump into “particular bond with the straw in the orange” in the Qualitative research.Even in developing economies, a Qualitative researcher for a Packaging design will surely ask these question before testing the new images/ideas for the future package. I guess they found the bond but dismissed it as “insignificant” in favor of experts/ designers opinion.

  9. Woe is me, for I am a true Pepsi loving consumer. Brands, like hockey teams, need to keep up a winning streak but, like the NHL, the on-ice or management trading and hiring cycle makes you wonder who’s playing for who you’re rooting for. In this case, the CCO should never have made it to the majors: Junior A moves, at best. And design house tours? C’mon dude! Had I known that when Pepsi engaged in the tragic redesign of their logo a few months ago I would have been even more shocked, knowing that the font alone was hot in 2004, not 2009!

  10. Hey Grant, a little late on this post, but it’s a topic I was following a few weeks back. And working in a design firm (not a “design house,” we’re not that pretentious) myself, I agree with your views on the “1% of 1%” rule. What’s really interesting to me about reading the comments above is that everyone seems to think you’re arguing for more consumer insight research and qualitative research that would have either better informed the design or led Tropicana away from the redesign idea altogether.

    In an ideal world, I believe that anthropology should be more creative and the creative design process should understand this creative side of anthropological analysis better. Ethnographic insights, and cultural insight more generally are not a data set that you can take or leave. The three points you made above are design constraints, similar to other design constraints, such as the size of the OJ carton. As such, these constraints help generate design by limiting its possibilities, not by informing or telling designers what to do. Arnell’s graphic design team failed to work inside of the cultural constraints that you could have helped provide for them—-as part of a cultural design team (if you could call it that).

    At least, that’s my take on the matter.

  11. Related to storm 3. The new package lost it’s elegant utility. The bold image of the straw inserted in the orange screams orange juice to even a 3-year old, and will always be remembered.

  12. A little late on this, but another point is consumers do not automatically read writing on packaging- some consumers are functionally illiterate for example, and recognise products by the overall look of the package. Change that look and people can no longer see your product on the shelf. Another group are “bad” consumers like myself- I honestly have no idea what some of the brands I buy regulary are, I just recognise the packets!

  13. hi Grant + others, I’m not in FMCG so a little lost. Did “We needed to rejuvenate, reengineer, rethink, reparticipate in popular culture” translate into “take the orange with straw out of the package design”? And make logo less obvious. The only thing I can this doing is perhaps making it stand out less on a shelf. Am I missing something important here?

    thanks, P

  14. Maybe no one in the initial focus groups expressed any particular bond with the straw in the orange, or maybe they weren’t asked, but certainly Tropicana is doing the right thing by responding to those expressing such sentiments after the fact.

    and

    It is highly doubtful that they did not bump into “particular bond with the straw in the orange” in the Qualitative research. Even in developing economies, a Qualitative researcher for a Packaging design will surely ask these question before testing the new images/ideas for the future package.

    Emphasis added.

    See, I think it’s impossible to gauge or uncover people’s emotional attachment to a familiar (iconic) product like Tropicana with focus groups or surveys. To most, these feelings are probably hidden and tied to routines both at the breakfast table or supermarket. The importance didn’t really manifest themselves until something like a new design was introduced. I actually think most people are unable to express WHY the new design was so bad compared to the old one. It probably “just didn’t feel right”.

    It’s hard to do consumer research outside the environments Tropicana is bought or consumed. The very nature of the product (repeat & routine purchases and consumption, mostly non-ego expressiveness) invites routine and it becoming a “staple” of your everyday life.

    But to be fair, I also thought the new design sucked in the sense that I thought a package like didn’t really stand out among other products and was very likely to be missed.

    Then again, I’ve always been skeptical of focus groups or marketing surveys anyway. Or at least distrustful of most marketers being competent in executing either.

  15. whoops, I didn’t realize you couldn’t stylize text. Anyway, my quotes were by Paschal Fowlkes…

    “Maybe no one in the initial focus groups expressed any particular bond with the straw in the orange, or maybe they weren’t asked, but certainly Tropicana is doing the right thing by responding to those expressing such sentiments after the fact.”

    … and by Mehran Afshar:

    “It is highly doubtful that they did not bump into “particular bond with the straw in the orange” in the Qualitative research.Even in developing economies, a Qualitative researcher for a Packaging design will surely ask these question before testing the new images/ideas for the future package. I guess they found the bond but dismissed it as “insignificant” in favor of experts/ designers opinion.”

  16. A company the size of Pepsico could always have made some small lots and done test marketing. customer reactions could have been studied and then major moves made. CEOs are used to grand budgets this sometimes leads to grandiosity.
    As far as the design goes fortunately we were not subjected to it in India. The new design looks more sophisticated and ‘cool’, but what one wants is a nice juicy drink. A nice colorful pack would always be welcome.

  17. I am surprised that a sales drop is interpreted as if “consumers where furious”. As if the consumers out of protest started buying the other juices that they’d never bought in the years before. The author’s argument that the new brand failed to touch the American consumer is interesting, but there may be a more down-to-earth explanation for the drop in sales.

    Quite possibly the agency’s research was not that different than with other rebrandings. But research in the lab can be very different from reality, when hurried consumers in the supermarket are trying to find their juice. Out of the lab, consumers no longer could find their Tropicana – because it had become unrecognizable.

    What should have been a small rejuvenation had turned into a completely different look.

  18. The packaging went from real to processed; from looking like an old fashioned produce section fruit crate label to retort packed, hyper-processed and pastuerized center of the store aisle fare. No refrigeration needed here. The people that did this had absolutely no social aptitude whatsoever.

  19. You know? I’m wondering if Massimo D’Amore did this in a premeditated fashion; the intent and failure both an excuse to purge all the smart people he’s chased out of Pepsi.

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