Sunday, April 19, 2009

The importance of creating a brand from the shelf out...

I have been following this story for a while now but it was because of today's article in the New York Times Magazine that it really hit me: design is where it's at. (Preposition intended.)

This story has gotten a lot of traction from AdAge (link is broken but the jest was: Sales of the Tropicana Pure Premium line dropped 19% between Jan. 1 and Feb. 22 resulting in a loss of $33 million following the disastrous introduction of new packaging), to the Huffington Post, to Fast Company, to a series in the NYT. But what I find most interesting was the consumer reaction. There are a number of forces at work here:
  1. Tropicana brand managers who are looking for new news to excite the trade and boost sales
  2. The design team (Arnell Group) who wants to infuse the brand with some design intellectualism, push the client for a brand REvolution rather than an evolution (and make some cash for the company)
  3. The consumer who has a love affair with a brand and wants nothing to change
A brand is something we create out of thin, calculated air... hopefully. Prior to a brand's launch it doesn't exist and has no meaning. It is not until it is designed that it begins to take on meaning. As Deyan Sudjic ascertains: "design is 'the DNA' of a society, the code that we need to explore if we are to stand a chance of understanding the nature of the modern world." Now this meaning is two-fold: the actual, inherent, tangible attributes and functionality of the product, and the embedded, attributed, ethereal, intangible beliefs of the brand. One is very left brain, the other very right brain. Some is conscious, some unconscious. So, in essence a successful brand is a balance of the two. Different brands exist at different point along the rational/emotional, tangible/intangible spectrum. Tropicana is more to the left (tangible) and the Tiffany blue box is more to the right (intangible). Or is it...

I see the Tropicana event as a tipping point in the modern American culture, one where design (in this case packaging) holds all the power of successful marketing. Even for lowly orange juice cartons.

If there is anything to learn from this fiasco, here are my take-aways:
  1. Creating something new just to create something new is not always a good idea.
    Brand Managers need to look at where the REAL marketing problem lies asking themselves "Where is the consumer OPT-OUT in their shopper journey?" Identify that and you can address the real marketing inflection point. For Tropicana it was a lemming situation: Pepsi is redesigning their logo and packaging, well, then we need to also. They chose the corporate path of least resistance because it would get the green light rather than ask the hard question: What is the real problem with this brand...
    This has landed PepsiCo with what is being referred to as their very own New Coke fiasco from 1985. "We underestimated the deep emotional bond [consumers] had with the original packaging" said Neil Campbell, president at Tropicana North America. Not be a genius of the obvious but, did you ask them before you started this.

  2. Design for design sake is not always a good idea.
    I call this board room design. The strategy is great - Squeeze. It has so many layers. Had I come up with it, I would have been proud. Unfortunately, the strategic team needed to follow through to design - the planners should have been in the room to evaluate creative. The execution was self-indulgent from a design perspective; they went cold and modern when they said warm and connected - the imagery and words are there but the design "feeling" is off: hugging families (warm), black and white visuals (cold), colorful orange (warm), sans-serif typography (cold).

    Even Peter Arnell seems to be struggling with telling the brand story.

    Moreover, if the shopper reaction is that it looks "ugly," "stupid," "generic brand-like," "store brand" then I would suspect that little research was done before (by conducting a retail category audit) or after (shopper testing in real-world, at shelf environments). Most likely it was done in a board room full of left-brain managers (this is not a criticism of MBAs, they are very good at finance, but it is a criticism of having the right person for the task of evaluating creative executions. Hire more artists to evaluate and screen packaging/art/design or better yet, put a CDO - Chief Design Officer - at the center of your company. If it's good enough for P&G, it should be good enough for the rest of us.). Or the packaging was tested in a traditional consumer focus group: closed room, no windows, two-way mirror, a bunch of people telling you what they think you want to hear - nothing remotely resembling the real retail shopping experience.
    Then again, I could be wrong and they did everything right and no one during research spoke up: brand managers, designers, consumers, shoppers, and they are all in shock from the consumer reaction.

  3. Not checking in with consumers thinking you are smarter than them is not always a good idea.
    If you are selling to them, find out what they think first. I have seen this happen so many times. Brand managers who get paid healthy six-figure salaries making marketing decisions for consumer (well they should, they get paid enough to know what other people want) without testing the creative before rolling things out only to find out consumers hate it. When was the last time they went into a grocery store.

  4. Consumers have all the power.
    We, in the marketing business from brand managers to agency folk, like to believe we are smarter and have this great ability to make things irresistible to consumers and shoppers. We are all victims of our intellectual delusions. All our expensive education will never, and I repeat, never make up for the fact that shoppers choose things for the most irrational reasons, the best of which is: because I can. The reason they do, is something attracted them to it. Their senses guided them to the design.

    In the case of Tropicana, the design turned them off. It turned them off so much they took the issue into their own hands and keyboards. Technology has given them the ultimate democratic power and seat at the marketing table to do something about their beloved Tropicana. Read, package design - still the same product, but not the same brand. Checking in with consumers now seems like a smarter idea than change for the sake of change. The Tropicana billboards were great but the packaging failed to sell the brand at shelf. You fail at shelf, no traditional advertising is going to help you.
So my question is: Even though we are in a turbulent time when people crave the familiar, is change good? Do we not just need an evolution to win the marketing game rather than a revolution?

The one upside I see in this story is what was done to increase the sensual experience of Tropicana - the squeezable cap in the shape and texture of an orange. More senses, more emotional connection. Not a revolution, an evolution for the brand. Tropicana decided to keep that because consumers liked it.

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