1) General Motors is about to appoint Bryan Nesbitt at the head of its Cadillac unit. Typically, John Stoll tells us, brand chiefs come from sales or marketing. This appointment suggests that GM is mobilizing to improve its grasp of the American consumer and culture. After all, designer often have a competence here. They listen to the zeitgeist. They pay attention to the forms and surfaces of the contemporary world. They have a feeling for our culture, an ear to the ground.
2) But not always. Sometimes designers are tone-deaf when it comes to culture. Peter Arnell demonstrated this in his redesign of PepsiCo brands. His redesign for Tropicana provoked criticism from consumer, and PepsiCo withdrew the package.
The question: was the Tropicana redesign the one bad apple. Or was Arnell's redesign of other PepsiCo brands flawed in a deeper, more systematic way? Sales results for Gatorade are now forthcoming, and things look grim. According to Bauerlein of the WSJ:
Sales of Gatorade … have slid this year despite a flashy new marketing campaign that simplified the product's label to "G." […] Gatorade lost a 4.5% share of the sports-drink market and volume slipped 17.5% in the first six months of this year, according to Beverage Digest estimates.
We might see this as the result of a weaker economy. But, no, the figures for Coca-Cola are not as bad as this, and there is some evidence of still more consumer unhappiness.
[…][C]onsumers complain they are confused by the Gatorade "G" campaign, which was meant to reverse a sales slump that began in 2008. In January, Pepsi replaced the Gatorade name on its label with a big letter "G" and shrunk its signature lightning bolt. […] The idea was to make the brand cool again but it misfired. "They asked 'What's G?' and the problem was, people weren't sure," said Bill Pecoriello, chief executive of market researcher ConsumerEdge Research LLC.
The root of the Arnell debacle is clear. Designers like Arnell confuse "culture" with "cool." They insist that the brand needs to be "edgy," "hip," "out there." And sometimes this is exactly right. A careful execution of cultural meanings on the very edge of our culture is exactly what is called for. (Snapple managed this in the 1990s.)
But if the only thing designers know about culture is cool, we have a problem. After all, cool makes up something like 2% of the cultural meanings in circulation at any given moment. To be sure, they are the most conspicuous meanings, the ones with the greatest attention. But if all the designer knows is cool, he or she has extraordinarily partial knowledge. And eventually the partial view will exact a penalty, preventing the designer from speaking to the deeper currents of American culture, and preventing access to the full range of creative resources at his or her disposal. Designers who only know cool are in some literal sense of the term incompetent. Marketing malpractice is just a matter of time.
Edgy is easy. If you live in the right part of town, read the right magazines, and consort with the right colleagues, it is not so very hard to capture cool. How much more difficult it is to master culture! Now, the designer must actually learn things that are badly out of fashion, to talk to Americans who have dubious taste in clothing and eyewear, to talk about things that are never talked about in hipster Brooklyn.
I believe good designers have always had a way of escaping the 2% approach to culture. And I believe the profession is mobilizing to look at culture much more broadly. As one case in point, IDEO uses ethnography to investigate the consumer in ways that take them (and the client) beyond "cool" into the details of daily life and the meanings of culture. We shall see if the rest of the profession follows suit.
3) We should expect a "course correction" from PepsiCo, an acknowledgment that Arnell's project was ill advised. Bauerlein's article is the first one I've seen that puts the blame for the Arnell debacle directly at the feet of the PepsiCo CEO, Indra Nooyi.
Gatorade's recent makeover, launched in January, marks the second marketing stumble in six months for the company under Chairman and Chief Executive Indra Nooyi, who pledged last year to boost weak North American beverage sales with hipper marketing.
But Nooyi has yet to signal a shift in philosophy or personnel. In her conference call, she choose instead to blame the victim. She said:
"Clearly some of those [former] users switched to cheaper alternatives" and in some cases soft drinks. "They didn't have a right to exist in the Gatorade world," they just liked the taste.
"Didn't have a right to exist in the Gatorade world"? Since when did PepsiCo think of itself as a night club? It is hard to tell from this wee fragment what Nooyi has in mind exactly, but it does rather look as if cool has infected not just the mind of the designer but the C-Suite itself.
Clearly, Nooyi needs to give a recantation. It is time to clear the decks and start again. Rumors now circulating suggest that the Arnell debacle will get steadily worse. First, Tropicana. Now, Gatorade. Can Pepsi and Mountain Dew be far behind? The "Arnell Affair" has the makings of a scandal. It is time for the classic techniques of crisis control and a public reset. This could even be an opportunity for Nooyi to promise us "cool" that comes from culture instead of the designer's lofty self regard. She might even wish to appoint a Chief Culture Officer.
These are interesting times…and odd ones. GM, that great dinosaur of a corporation, appears to be leaning in the direction of a new, more robust cultural intelligence. (And if this is the work of CMO Robert Lutz, hat's off to you, sir. See my discouraging words on Lutz's appointment as CMO.) And Pepsi, that darling of the daring marketer, appears to have lost its way.
The take away: Designers are a way that culture gets into the corporation, and GM is stronger for its Nesbitt appointment. But they can also be a wrecking crew. The trick, I believe, is to repudiate the inclination to make cool all the designer (and the brand) knows about culture. The American corporation must learn to stop pursuing the first at the cost of the second.
Bauerleign, Valerie. 2009. Pepsi Sweats Over Gatorade. Wall Street Journal. July 23. [All quotes in this post are from this article.]
McCracken, Grant. 2009. Tropicana: When CCOs Go Wrong. This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics. April 21. here.
McCracken, Grant. 2009. Chief Culture Officer. New York: Basic Books. (Forthcoming this fall. Preorder at Amazon here.)
Stoll, John. 2009. GM to Name New Cadillac Chief, More Board Members. Wall Street Journal. July 23, 2009.