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Tropicana's switch shows we love you

Bradenton Herald – March 30, 2009

Big companies sometimes have to do a quick two-step and sashay around a branding boo boo.

Tropicana is in the midst of a do-si-do.

The Bradenton-based fruit juicer is resurrecting its recently laid-to-rest orange-and-the-straw packaging logo after public outcry over its generic-looking replacement.

Who knew the public would be so crazy in love with the iconic 60-year-old brand that it would balk so fiercely at a new look? Comments about the change were, to put it mildly, not nice.

The company was trying to project a newer, more elegant and upscale image, but the effort failed when the product hit the shelves. Consumers didn’t like the look or the loss of their familiar OJ carton. “What’s that?” many startled shoppers asked as they realized the orange with the straw in it had been dethroned by a much blander glass of juice.

“Everything systematically looked good, but the question always is, what is it going to look like on the shelf?” questioned Scott Montgomery with Bradley and Montgomery, an Indianapolis-based branding company that wasn’t involved in the Tropicana switch but has worked with clients such as Microsoft and JP Morgan Chase. All the focus groups and sample testing in the world can’t always alert a company of how buyers will respond, he said.

What does Tropicana say?

“We have a passionate consumer base that loves and trusts the Tropicana brand and what’s inside of it. They have an emotional connection with it,” said Jamie Stein, communications director for the company.

Lessons learned from Tropicana’s mistake should be heeded by other companies who are busy trying to distinguish their products amidst a marketplace hounded by competition and slow sales.

Heinz Ketchup recently switched from its famous Gherkin pickle logo to a new “grown not made” slogan. Gatorade, Wal-Mart and Pepsi also have recently rebranded.

“People are feeling more pressure than ever to create more energy around their brand in the marketplace,” Montgomery said. He thinks there is a certain nostalgic feeling now among consumers who want to feel comforted and welcomed in the middle of all the fear of the unknown.

Yet Tropicana certainly got quite a bit of press out of its branding flub. Columnists and news media outlets covered the marketing switch extensively, and there were lots of public comments in print and on the Internet.

“Our intent was to get people to rediscover the benefits of orange juice,” Stein said.

Even though the company got a temporary black eye and spent millions to reverse its course, Montgomery thinks it turned out to be a good thing for the juice maker.

At the end of the day, Tropicana was seen as being ultimately responsible to the consumer — company officials listened to consumers and made the change back.

“If you use consumers as your compass, you can’t go wrong,” Stein said.

Sam Stern, partner in CAP, a brand marketing and public relations firm in Sarasota, agrees that Tropicana’s publicity has been priceless. The fact that consumers were up in arms about the change shows what an emotional connection the brand has developed — the essence of good branding, he says.

“The important thing is what consumers think it is, not what you think it is,” Stern said. “In this case, there were a lot of loyal customers who let them know they didn’t like the change. Tropicana got a great lesson from this. It did cost them a lot, but the press they’ve gotten from it is significant.”

If you wanted to think deviously, you might wonder if the Tropicana switch was actually part of an overall campaign to revive the brand. What better way to get lots of media attention than to generate buzz around a logo switch and come out looking to many like a corporate biggie who listened to its audience and responded?

Tropicana insists the switching was not part of an overall plan to build brand loyalty, but it is obvious all the publicity certainly pumped up the brand’s presence. And Stein does admit “we got a lot of PR out of it,”

In these days of TiVo and stingy spending, it is more important than ever to distinguish your brand — and, according to Stern, take a hard look inward and do it on an emotional level.

So congrats, Tropicana. You know consumers love you and your product. Just don’t scare us again.

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