By STUART ELLIOTT
IT took 24 years, but PepsiCo now has its own version of New Coke.
The PepsiCo Americas Beverages division of PepsiCo is bowing to public demand and scrapping the changes made to a flagship product, Tropicana Pure Premium orange juice. Redesigned packaging that was introduced in early January is being discontinued, executives plan to announce on Monday, and the previous version will be brought back in the next month.
Also returning will be the longtime Tropicana brand symbol, an orange from which a straw protrudes. The symbol, meant to evoke fresh taste, had been supplanted on the new packages by a glass of orange juice.
The about-face comes after consumers complained about the makeover in letters, e-mail messages and telephone calls and clamored for a return of the original look.
Some of those commenting described the new packaging as “ugly” or “stupid,” and resembling “a generic bargain brand” or a “store brand.”
“Do any of these package-design people actually shop for orange juice?” the writer of one e-mail message asked rhetorically. “Because I do, and the new cartons stink.”
Others described the redesign as making it more difficult to distinguish among the varieties of Tropicana or differentiate Tropicana from other orange juices.
Such attention is becoming increasingly common as interactive technologies enable consumers to rapidly convey opinions to marketers.
“You used to wait to go to the water cooler or a cocktail party to talk over something,” said Richard Laermer, chief executive at RLM Public Relations in New York.
“Now, every minute is a cocktail party,” he added. “You write an e-mail and in an hour, you’ve got a fan base agreeing with you.”
That ability to share brickbats or bouquets with other consumers is important because it facilitates the formation of ad hoc groups, more likely to be listened to than individuals.
“There will always be people complaining, and always be people complaining about the complainers,” said Peter Shankman, a public relations executive who specializes in social media. “But this makes it easier to put us together.”
The phenomenon was on display last week when users of Facebook complained about changes to the Web site’s terms of service using methods that included, yes, groups on facebook.com. Facebook yielded to the protests and reverted to its original contract with users.
And in November, many consumers who used Twitter to criticize an ad for Motrin pain reliever received responses within 48 hours from the brand’s maker, a unit of Johnson & Johnson, which apologized for the ad and told them it had been withdrawn.
“Twitter is the ultimate focus group,” Mr. Shankman said. “I can post something and in a minute get feedback from 700 people around the world, giving me their real opinions.”
Neil Campbell, president at Tropicana North America in Chicago, part of PepsiCo Americas Beverages, acknowledged that consumers can communicate with marketers “more readily and more quickly” than ever. “For companies that put consumers at the center of what they do,” he said, “it’s a good thing.”
It was not the volume of the outcries that led to the corporate change of heart, Mr. Campbell said, because “it was a fraction of a percent of the people who buy the product.”
Rather, the criticism is being heeded because it came, Mr. Campbell said in a telephone interview on Friday, from some of “our most loyal consumers.”
“We underestimated the deep emotional bond” they had with the original packaging, he added. “Those consumers are very important to us, so we responded.”
Among those who underestimated that bond was Mr. Campbell himself. In an interview last month to discuss the new packaging, he said, “The straw and orange have been there for a long time, but people have not necessarily had a huge connection to them.”
Reminded of that on Friday, Mr. Campbell said: “What we didn’t get was the passion this very loyal small group of consumers have. That wasn’t something that came out in the research.”
That echoed an explanation offered in 1985 by executives of the Coca-Cola Company in response to the avalanche of complaints when they replaced the original version of Coca-Cola with New Coke: Consumers in focus groups liked the taste of New Coke, but were not told old Coke would disappear. The original version was hastily brought back as Coca-Cola Classic and New Coke eventually fizzed out.
(There are, it should be noted, significant differences between the two corporate flip-flops. For instance, the Tropicana changes involved only packaging, not the formula for or taste of the beverage.)
An ad campaign for Tropicana that helped herald the redesigned cartons, also introduced last month, will continue to run, Mr. Campbell said. Print and outdoor ads that have already appeared will not be changed, he added, but future elements of the campaign — like commercials, due in March — would be updated.
Unlike the packaging, the campaign has drawn praise, particularly for including in its family imagery several photographs of fathers and children hugging. Such dad-centric images are rare in food ads.
The campaign, which carries the theme “Squeeze it’s a natural,” was created by Arnell in New York, part of the Omnicom Group. Arnell also created the new version of the Tropicana packaging.
“Tropicana is doing exactly what they should be doing,” Peter Arnell, chairman and chief creative officer at Arnell, said in a separate telephone interview on Friday.
“I’m incredibly surprised by the reaction,” he added, referring to the complaints about his agency’s design work, but “I’m glad Tropicana is getting this kind of attention.”
In fact, Tropicana plans to contact “everyone who called or wrote us” to express opinions, Mr. Campbell said, “and explain to them we’re making the change.”
Tropicana is among several PepsiCo brands whose packaging and logos have been recently redesigned by Arnell. The new logo the agency produced for Pepsi-Cola has been the subject of comments by ad bloggers who perceive a resemblance to the logo for the Barack Obama presidential campaign.
The bloggers have also buzzed about a document outlining the creation of the Pepsi-Cola logo, which appears to have been written by Arnell for PepsiCo executives; Mr. Arnell has declined to comment on the authenticity of the document, which is titled “Breathtaking Design Strategy” and is written in grandiose language.
One aspect of the new Tropicana packaging is being salvaged: plastic caps for the cartons, also designed by Arnell, that are shaped and colored like oranges.
Those caps will be used, Mr. Campbell said, for cartons of Trop 50, a variety of Tropicana with less sugar and calories that is to be introduced soon.
During the interview last month, Mr. Campbell said that Tropicana would spend more than $35 million on the “Squeeze” campaign. Although he declined on Friday to discuss how much it would cost to scrap the new packaging and bring back the previous design, he said the amount “isn’t significant.”
Asked if he was chagrined that consumers rejected the changes he believed they wanted, Mr. Campbell replied: “I feel it’s the right thing to do, to innovate as a company. I wouldn’t want to stop innovating as a result of this. At the same time, if consumers are speaking, you have to listen.”
Reprinted from the NY Times
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company