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 This was then withdrawn in late February.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?
Elliott, Stuart. 2009. Tropicana Discovers Some Buyers Are Passionate About Packaging. New York Times. February 22, 2009.
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.