Tropicana’s Costly Listening Lesson

Mark RitsonApril 15, 20093 min

At the start of the year, it all seemed to make perfect sense. PepsiCo decided that Tropicana, one of its biggest brands, was in need of a major brand overhaul. In January, the company told assembled journalists to expect an ‘historic integrated marketing campaign’ and a redesign that would ‘reinforce the brand and product attributes’ and ‘rejuvenate the category’.

Then PepsiCo introduced its secret weapon. In swept Peter Arnell, chief executive of brand and innovation agency the Arnell Group. In a rambling speech, he described a five-month ‘journey’ that had resulted in ‘dramatic’ changes leading to Tropicana’s packaging being ‘engineered’ to ‘imply ergonomically’ the ‘notion of squeezing’.

Those with prior exposure to Arnell were not surprised by the incoherent grandeur of his presentation that day. This was the designer who had made reference to the Mona Lisa, the Parthenon and the Golden Ratio in his explanation of the Pepsi logo he had created in 2008; who owns 1600 pairs of spectacles; and famously lost almost 18 stones (252 Pounds) in weight by eating carrots, cucumber and steamed cauliflower (dipped in mustard and sesame seeds) every day for two years. The guru célèbre was in the house.

There was just one problem. Arnell’s design for Tropicana was awful. Its clean lines and empty aesthetics achieved something Tropicana’s competitors had failed to in 20 years – a degradation of its brand equity and an undermining of its status as market leader. Devoid of its signature design of an orange and a straw, the package looked like a bland, private-label juice. The deficiency was noted first by design students commenting on blogs and then angry consumers who could not find the brand in stores. Finally, it began to hit sales.

Overindulge the creative whim at the expense of the brief and the brand will always pay the price. The disastrous London 2012 logo solicited public disgust in 2007, but there was little, if any, way to calculate the lost impetus from Wolf Olins’ lacklustre design.

But the same mis-step in such an established, ultra-competitive and fast-moving category as fresh juices comes complete with an immediate and estimable impact on the bottom line. Tropicana’s new look has coincided with a sales slump of 20% for the brand this year – $33m (£22.1m) in sales lost to competitors including Minute Maid, Florida Natural and private labels, all of which are reporting sizable share gains.

Understandably, after seven weeks, PepsiCo pulled the plug on the packaging. The integrated marketing campaign will continue, but with shots of the old packaging inserted. Neil Campbell, president of Tropicana North America, admitted: ‘I wouldn’t want to stop innovating as a result of this. At the same time, if consumers are speaking, you have to listen.’

Correct – but what a shame this acknowledgement came six weeks too late. If it had properly pre-tested the disastrous design, consumers would have told PepsiCo that the brand and sales were going to take a hit. Blaming Arnell for this fiasco would be like spanking a dog for peeing on a new rug: he’s just doing what comes naturally. For me, the blame lies with the brand owner for losing sight of marketing’s central and enduring rule – it’s all about the consumer, stupid.

There is no room in marketing for gurus, just good listeners. Creativity has its place in consumer goods, and that place is anchored by a short chain to the market research and brand positioning; I’ve got $33m and an ocean of unsold orange juice to prove the point.

30 Seconds On Peter Arnell

  • Arnell’s agency employs 170 people and bills itself as a ‘multi-disciplinary brand and product invention company’ that ‘examines the space between brand assets and consumer desire’ to ‘help brands capture and realize differentiation by exploiting a unique emotional dimension’.
  • ‘Can you imagine such mishegoss over a freaking box of juice? It’s not my brand [or] my company. So what the hell? I got paid a lot of money, and I have 30 other projects. You move on.’ – Arnell on the Tropicana Fallout.
  • ‘Arnell seduced PepsiCo into forking over millions of dollars, and gave it a memo about perimeter oscillations and the gravitational pull of a soda-pop can. Is that nuts? Probably.’ – Newsweek on Arnell’s Pepsi Logo.
  • ‘A logo on a can of soda? Please. My life is bullshit.’ – Arnell on his work for Pepsi.
  • ‘Our business momentum has changed. Customers like the new [Pepsi logo] design. Our bottlers like it. We’re happy with the work.’ – PepsiCo chief marketing officer Dave Burwick.

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  • Denis Baldwin

    April 15, 2009 at 8:49 am

    It’s very true. Every time I see a major brand change a logo, I cringe. Not only does Pepsi now share the Obama logo, but Tropicana has gone rogue. No wonder I can’t find anything at the grocery store anymore.

  • Stuart Foster

    April 15, 2009 at 11:46 am

    I just don’t understand the reasoning behind re-imagining a market leader’s branding/logo. Does this make sense on any level? Refine yes…remake no.

  • olivier blanchard

    April 15, 2009 at 11:47 am

    Great piece, Mark. That is a pretty serious cautionary tale – which strikes at the heart of the relationship between brand management and the growing class of marketing hacks evidently determined to sell companies with deep pockets their latest batch of bulls**t.

    What this guy did to PepsiCo. is shameful. Aside from the weak, uninspired nonsensical logo/identity tweaks of Pepsi, Tropicana and Gatorade (now just “G”) his team completely failed to communicate the rest of the evolving brands’ values and stories. All we saw and heard about were the new logos and package designs. Where was the PR? Where was the substance? Where were the brand managers in all of this? Why was so much emphasis put on design changes no one asked for or even cared about?

    I don’t think I have ever seen a sadder real-world rendering of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” in the world of brands. Arnell is a complete hack. My ten-year-old could do his job, and she would charge a whole lot less.

  • Brandon R Allen

    April 15, 2009 at 3:40 pm

    You say there is no place in marketing for gurus. I would take it a step further and say there is no room left for gurus anywhere. Arnell’s brand of self importance is dead. Would you trust a man who’s own brand is terrible to rebrand an important asset of your company? Pepsi did.

  • Sasha

    October 18, 2010 at 7:11 am

    We did an eye tracking study on the effectiveness of the ‘New’ pack in the UK where we have never had the straw graphic and the results predict a 13% loss of sales. Tropicana shoppers don’t see new packages at shelf and are drawn to Tesco’s own brand products that have some similarities to the UK Tropicana pack. The truth about the sales loss has little to do with that graphic, and everything to do with shoppers ‘ability to find the new packages at shelf. Consumers have to find the product at shelf before they can buy it. One eye tracking study and this could have been avoided!

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