In the past few weeks I have heard marketing directors from three different large consumer packaged goods companies begin a strategic brand identity design discussion with the warning, "My brand needs significant enhancement, but don't to go too crazy. Don't 'Tropicana' my brand!" They've literally turned the now well-known Tropicana re-branding effort into a verb. In the best cases, this perception causes undue caution and holding cards too close to the chest. In the worst cases, it sparks a fear of design rather than an understanding of design's critical role in the consumer-brand relationship.
More than enough ink already has been spilled, and cyberspace has been cluttered with the Tropicana issue. I, too, am tired of the armchair quarterbacks and our pithy points of view. However, as part of the ever-widening fallout from this experience, three important concerns remain unaddressed. The first concern is the fact that the Tropicana brand lost 20% of its sales within weeks of the new identity's launch while the category as a whole grew by double digits. This is an irrefutable testament to the power of the package in either driving consumer purchase decisions or completely eroding them. The second concern is that the newly founded fear of design will cast a skeptical perception of the designer as a dangerous "creative guru." This significantly undermines the respect that strategically driven design firms have ardently won over the past two decades.
The third and perhaps most important concern is that, to my knowledge, no one has determined where the Tropicana re-branding process failed. What was missing? As the Native American paradigm states "We learn far more from our failures than our successes." Where is the learning here? Please let me preface this piece by confirming that I do not have any direct or specific knowledge about how PepsiCo and Arnel ran this project, other than what already has been written (see a list of sources at the end of this article). Please recognize with me the notable successes that both companies have produced, together and independently. Last, please know the following is not intended as a "Finger-pointing smack doen" but perhaps our best opportunity to analyze this case study to inform about best practices in brand identity.
The only credible information about Arnel's process that I've found actually is not from the Tropicana case study but rather its counterpart, their work on the new Pepsi identity. I imagine you have already seen it, but if not you can download it. What appears to have driven the Pepsi re-branding is neither a strategic understanding of the consumer experience nor an analysis of the brand's core visual equities that symbolize it. Instead, it seems to be informed by historical archetypes of the brand's "perimeter oscillations," inspired by The Golden Ratio and Feng Shui, among other things. If this is the same process that drove Tropicana, it contributed to its failure. In going down the list of best practices, what's missing? The consumer. If new Coke taught us anything it is that companies do not own their brands, their consumers do. Bringing consumer insights into the process at its onset may well have determined how far the Tropicana brand story and its core visual equities could be evolved before they started to betray brand recognition. Also overlooked might have been a new consumer trend, one specifically salient to the Tropicana brand experience. This trend suggests that in turbulent times consumers look to be comforted, not challenged and least of all confused. In one loyal consumer's opinion, I trusted the Tropicana brand. It had incredible integrity to me. I relied on it. The new identity challenged that integrity. Above anything else, brand trust is sacrosanct, and when an identity toys with it, the result can be devastating.
Again, without a detailed understanding of the process that drove the Tropicana redesign, we will never know which critical steps might have been overlooked. However, certainly there are industry best practices that could have proven how far the brand identity could have evolved without questioning brand trust in the process. Brand identity is a visual media, and yet, every branding assignment begins with a brief and a positioning statement written in words that consumers never see. A design strategist's first goal is to convert these words into an ownable brand experience or a "brand story," and then visualize that story. In essence, we first need to create a visual brief.
Below is a much-abbreviated example of The Dial Corporation's visual brand language for its newly redesigned Renuzit brand. It evokes the ownable brand story which differentiates their fragranced product experience as "rejuvenation" while their odor neutralizing products own "renewal". Both the brand and product stories were predetermined by research to be a value-added and meaningful contrast to the "room deodorizer" category.
The visual positioning predetermines the colors, shapes, textures, photographic styles, type fonts, and all other visual strategies that best portray the brand experience and the product stories within it. Like Tropicana, this too resulted in a significant revolution of its existing design architecture, but only because consumers already believed the Renuzit brand could evolve this dramatically without loosing its believability. A second and essential best practice is to expose this visual language to consumers and enhance it based on their insights. Traditional qualitative methodologies are not the best way to test visual strategy. Wallace Church has been working for more than a decade with the ideation firm Ideas to Go and its "creative consumers" who have the ability to articulate their reactions to visual stimuli. These people are not designers but rather everyday folks who are just more visually literate and able to communicate how imagery affects brand perception.
Marketing and design management are only part of the audience for this pre-design process. Of equal value are the insights that advertising, sales promotion, merchandising, Web development, social media, and all other allied communications consultancies contribute to interpreting the research and finalizing visual strategies. Once these independent consultants see the design firm incorporating their ideas, changing the visual language accordingly, and then acting on that change, they are compelled to use the same visual strategies to synthesize the brand experience at every consumer touch point. Only now that the colors, shapes, textures, photographic styles, fonts, and all other visual strategies have been predetermined by the allied team and verified by the consumer can an effective and efficient design process begin. Only with consensus on the visual strategies that best evoke the brand experience can you make the "subjective" process of design more empirical, understandable to marketing mind-sets, and universally attributable all brand communications.
No longer a guru's vision, design is now a strategic, empirically quantified visual process. I am convinced that had PepsiCo embraced pre-design research it would have immediately discovered that removing Tropicana's recognized "orange and straw" mnemonic and the brand's color segmentation system would confuse consumers and tarnish brand trust.
Only now can the "creative" process begin. And as soon as design architectures are developed, they should be researched as consumers experience them, in the context of the retail environment. A number of research companies use quantitative measures like eyetracking and other store simulation technologies to determine how the tested design architectures affect findability (how quickly they recognize the brand), shopability (how effective the design is in differentiating brand segments), and brand affinity (how they felt about what they saw). Had PepsiCo exposed Tropicana's new brand architecture to consumers in this context, they would have discovered its significant segmentation confusion.
In my mind, the only way to determine process success is to quantify its return on investment. Researching visual strategies prior to initiating the design process is not an insignificant investment. However, it is not how much a process costs but how much profit it generates (or looses) that makes it either valuable or expensive. A 19% drop in sales for the Tropicana brand represents tens of millions of dollars, not including the consultant's costs, its pre-media, printing, and total implementation. In our experience, an additional investment in pre qualifying brand visual strategy has proven to be the key to brand identity success.
A final argument still must be made for courageous but informed creative leadership. Good research does not replace great design, but it certainly can inform it. Branding teams are looking to be inspired. Consumers are also looking to be led rather than followed. Without the creative inspiration of brands like Method, Apple, Starbucks, Target, and other game-changing brands, we simply would be feeding the herd and not moving it.
However, brand integrity is way too valuable an asset to be left solely in the hands of marketing mavericks and creative gurus. Visual brand essence research is not the death of the great idea. When done correctly it can be the inspiration for consumer engagement. It can inform design as the foundation of the consumer/brand relationship. It can prevent brands from being "Tropicana-ed."
Rob Wallace, is managing partner of Wallace Church Inc., a Manhattan-based strategic brand identity consultancy with clients including P&G / Gillette, Nestlé, Coca-Cola, Schering-Plough, Kodak, Brown-Forman, Heinz and Kraft.
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