Lessons from the Tropicana Rebranding Disaster

PepsiCo has been trying to rebrand the Pepsi, Gatorade, Tropicana and Mountain Dew products. How's it going? Try this: "It represents perhaps the largest and most cavalier destruction of brand value we will ever see," says Grant McCracken, in his excellent analysis of what's gone wrong.

Peter Arnell, the Pepsi man assigned to the Tropicana orange juice rebrand, described his job thusly:

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

Here's McCracken:

But let's look at what Peter Arnell…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.

Classic. Spending time in design houses instead of spending time with your customers.

Tropicana rolled out a new design for its orange juice container — the old design on the left, the new design on the right. Consumers were furious and sales plunged 20%. It's since been pulled from the shelves.6a00d8341c4e2e53ef011570396118970bJUICE

McCracken goes on to playfully mock the hip design types who think reparticipating in popular culture means just being "cool" and for ignoring the emotional needs of the 99% of the population who do not wear black thick rimmed artist glassses:

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…. 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.

Bottom Line: For entrepreneurs everywhere, it's about the customer. It's about the customer. It's about the customer. Tropicana "branding experts" were wandering the halls of hip design houses instead of sitting at the breakfast table with Americans who at the moment are hurting for cash and craving stability and familiarity.

13 comments on “Lessons from the Tropicana Rebranding Disaster
  • What’s funny is that I liked the rebrand a lot, and was ready to defend it…and then realized that I liked much more the familiarity of the Tropicana carton, which always reminds me of my (now dead) grandparents, who always had Tropicana in the fridge.

  • In this post you write “it’s about the customer, it’s about the customer, it’s about the customer” but I remember a post (correct me if I’m wrong) where you quoted Henry Ford saying “if I had asked the people what they wanted, they would have said, a faster horse.” How do you identify the situations where you should listen to the customer, and decide to what degree to listen to them? How do you recognize the situations where the customer will be right and what they want is in fact what’s right for them, versus the situations where they don’t know what they want until you show it to them?

  • Personally when I first noticed the new Tropicana design I thought it was a generic, no name brand, and I passed it over the first few times. Not exactly what they wanted.

  • I wonder how highly paid executives with mba’s and other fancy degrees make such a silly mistake, What good is Harvard?
    Almost all management books,articles,newsletters,blogs talks about either – customer or employee. Take feedback from end users rather than going to Jurassic park.

  • This is a difficult issue. I would say one distinction between Tropicana, where the customer is right and, Ford, where the customer didn’t know what they wanted, was cultural/emotional vs. technological.
    I’d bet on an emotional level when cars first came out, horses will still preferred, but the increased utility of cars in other areas of life, such as improved speed, length and comfort of transit overwhelmed the nostalgic and inertial factors that supported mounted transportation. Eventually because cars have all this added utility to life, (in addition to it’s high entry cost leading to higher perceived value) owning one becomes the cool thing to do.

    Revamping and modernizing the design on a juice carton loses nostalgic points and does not gain any utility points.

    I’d say Henry Ford’s quote about the customer not knowing what they want applies mostly in situations when a technological paradigm shift is on the horizon.

  • I think Denise’s comment explains a big part of why Tropicana was wrong. It wasn’t so much that they tried to be cool—it’s that they ditched the brand identity that so many were familiar with. The problem wasn’t that they didn’t like the new design. It was that they didn’t recognize it. When you’re selling a commodity, you can’t do that.

    Additionally, the redesign created another problem. It made it very difficult to distinguish between different kinds of Tropicana orange juice. The first time that I bought a redesigned carton, I ended up with added calcium or something. I had looked at the carton for a while too.

    I think that the biggest problem was that people weren’t ready for the new cartons. It happened without explanation and confused customers.

  • As a consumer, I gotta say, the first thing I look for when I buy orange juice is. . . a picture of an orange. Otherwise I’m all, “Is this grapefruit, or some kind of mixed citrus beverage, or Crisco in a juice container?”

    I hated the redesign but buy whatever not-from-concentrate is on sale anyway. If given the choice, I’ll always pick Simply Orange b/c I like Donald Sutherland, who does the voiceovers for the commercials.

  • Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m a designer. And I’m about as unhip and uncool as you can get. Heck, I wasn’t even cool when I was teenager.

    Since I don’t have a reservoir of coolness and hipness to fall back on, I’m left with the notion that I need to design things that actually work for my clients.

    Must be doing something right, because I’ve been in this business for almost 14 years, and, during that time, I’ve seen a lot of hipsters come and go.

    In short, from this designer’s perspective, hipness and coolitude are overrated.

  • Your suggestion is well thought out, but it’s really not this complex. What Ford was speaking to was the difference between the rational interpretation of what the customer would say and understanding the values that needed to be satisfied to get the positive emotional response that ultimately drives every decision we make. Ford understood that “give me a faster horse” really means “give me a more efficient way to get where I’m going,” and that the consumer just doesn’t have the language to adequately describe the associated feelings they are hungering for other than to relate to the context they have: trasportation is done on horses. Every decision we make is ultimately predictable by the way we want to feel.


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