Was Tropicana Wrong? (Or Just Not Right Enough?)

Discovering what makes a customer tick can feel difficult.

That’s why we spend small fortunes on research.

That’s why we demand support from such research before allowing major changes by brand managers. 

And that is why so many layers of management lose touch. 

How else to explain what Tropicana did to itself this quarter?  A packaging redesign so disastrous that they have been forced to reverse gears to salvage the brand.  (The new design could be called clean, crisp, and surprisingly generic-store-brandy.) Some customers evidently couldn’t even figure out what product variety they were looking at – and trust me, you don’t want to send Extra-Pulp home with a No-Pulp customer.  I personally thought my grocer Dominick’s had gotten rid of Tropicana in a shelf-optimization scheme gone mad.

So how did Tropicana management set themselves up to risk blowing $35 million on a new look customers overwhelmingly reject?  I like the Peter Merholz analysis at HBR.org  which identifies the seemingly generic look of the new design as a great way to confuse customers in a relatively crowded, complex decision environment (you wouldn’t think so…but once again I must bring up the horrors of Extra-Pulp.)  He identifies this as a ‘usability’ problem.

His analysis has likely nailed the primary design failure point,  but ya’ gotta wonder how smart folks working with a budget that big could have missed it.  Enough brands have succeeded (and failed) to reposition that the waters are pretty well charted.

  • Maybe they knew customers would have trouble, but thought they could get through it using brute force communication tactics. (“We’ll teach ’em why they’ll love it.”)
  • Maybe they fell in love with the positive responses they got from focus groups (“ooooh, it seems fresher somehow – I’m getting shivers just thinking about topping my evening off with a Screwdriver!”) while forgetting how failure-prone focus groups are.
  • Maybe previous research laid the entire problem for lackluster brand sales on the admittedly aging look of their old packaging and so they threw the baby out with the bath water. (“I’ve always hated that orange-with-a-straw thing. Who ever heard of a straw-in-an-orange?”)

Regardless of their reasoning, the organizational failure point is likely to be the the same – somehow they failed to accurately prioritize what is truly important to OJ customers.  They failed to understand the real purchase decision. (And to be fair, maybe their timing was off – would this have worked 8 months ago?)

Innovation carries risk. The innovation teeter-totter we live on must balance risk with reward.  Tropicana believed something drastic had to change to re-energize their brand.  Did they balance the dangers of a complete reposition with a real market test? A retail test?  What signals did they miss and why?

Do you have a clear idea of how your next innovation will affect customers? What are the circuit breakers built into your product development process to double check and challenge assumptions?  Who speaks for the customer in your organization? 

Tropicana appears to have botched a major initiative that was trying to bring new life into an old brand. They’ve had to pull the plug and step back, lick their wounds. Now for the real test:  They have to learn from the misstep and immediately restart their innovation engine.  (Yup, there’s a reason why I think innovation and creativity looks a lot like kissing-the-frog, you have to keep at it till you find that prince.)

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One Response to Was Tropicana Wrong? (Or Just Not Right Enough?)

  1. Pingback: Good Taste In Advertising? Quiznos Tests Taste. – Frog Blog

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