Prairie Dog

The Discipline of Distinction.

In 2009, Tropicana launched a refresh of its best-selling product in North America — Tropicana Pure Premium. Almost immediately social media was abuzz with criticism of the new packaging. Within two months, sales dropped by 21%, resulting in a $30 million loss.

The creative director of Tropicana’s agency was quoted in The Branding Journal explaining, “We thought it would be important to take this brand and … evolve it into a more current or modern state.”

Tropicana North America’s president reacted to the backlash by saying, “We underestimated the deep emotional bond they had with the original packaging. What we didn’t get was the passion this very loyal small group of consumers have. That wasn’t what came out in the research.”

So, CMOs and agencies, remember Tropicana the next time you get the itch to refresh your brand. Just remember it for the right reasons. The Tropicana debacle is not about breaking a “deep emotional bond they (consumers) had with the original packaging.”

The good Dr. Byron Sharp (see How Brands Grow) has empirically proven that people don’t really love brands or have a deep emotional relationship with their orange juice. Brands grow through establishing mental and physical availability.

The lesson to be learned from Tropicana is a lesson in distinctiveness. Distinction lets the consumer know it is you. It makes sure your brand looks like itself. Consistency is critical.

Brand codes, or assets, are the way brands establish distinctiveness. Think the Coca-Cola bottle. The cursive Coca-Cola logo. The red Coca-Cola color. Or, in Tropicana’s case, the familiar package with the unique Tropicana typeface and the orange with a straw.

In his book “Thinking Fast and Slow,” Daniel Kahneman talks about the two brain systems that drive how people make decisions. System 1 makes fast, automatic, everyday decisions. System 2 makes more deliberate, conscious, complex decisions. He tells us that most decision-making happens in System 1. This is where brand codes go to work. They give consumers a shortcut to make brand choices with little effort or attention.

When we disrupt the familiarity of established brand codes, we’re no longer easy to find and buy. It wasn’t that consumers loved the old Tropicana packaging. The problem was that Tropicana no longer looked like itself without the familiar logo and the orange with the straw. And consumers struggled to find it.

Brand codes are the levers of your brand’s distinctiveness. Specifically, we’re talking the brand logo, font, color, shape/patterns, packaging, founders, characters, and product cues like sounds and smells. Think the Tiffany Box, the Nike Swoosh, the Maytag Repairman, the Louis Vitton pattern, Mickey Mouse, Elon Musk, or the T-Mobile sound.

Many will say these distinctive brand assets are more important than even your brand positioning. Why? Unless the consumer knows that it’s you, there’s nothing to differentiate.

So, be careful and thoughtful in how you deploy your brand codes. Consider these tips for practicing the discipline of distinction:

  1. Use research to identify and select your most salient and unique codes.

Don’t stop with awareness of your brand name when conducting your brand survey. In her book “Building Distinctive Brand Assets,” Jenni Romaniuk recommends using unaided and aided association to measure the uniqueness of brand codes. For example, show your brand color to see which brands come to mind. The percentage that name only your brand indicates how unique this code is to your brand. These are the keepers.

  1. Use your brand codes constantly and consistently.

“Codify, codify, codify.” That is the advice of famous marketing professor Mark Ritson. Ritson tells us to “use your brand codes explicitly at every touchpoint — everywhere, mercilessly, over and over again.” Mental availability decays constantly. You must keep it present. When you worry that you’re overusing your brand codes, use them more.

  1. Don’t be afraid to use your codes creatively.

Once established, your codes are incredible assets. With good judgement and creativity, they can be used to draw even more attention to your brand — even to revitalize it. KFC used its Colonel Sanders brand code — an elderly southern gentleman in a white suit — to move to a more updated, fresh KFC. It was as simple as having several characters play the Colonel in their new ad campaign. Google changes its logo up to highlight special events, topics and seasons. Every change makes it current and draws attention.

Tropicana learned the value of brand codes the hard way. So, take a lesson from their mistake and take advantage of the discipline of distinction in our health care branding.


Jerry Hobbs

Jerry Hobbs is a marketing strategist and the president of Prairie Dog, a national health care marketing group headquartered in Kansas City.