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A Branding Image Lesson…From 1988

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When you set a marketing goal to capture 1% of the consumer soft drink market, but manage to capture only one-tenth of that, it could be called disappointing. “”Disappointment?” said 7-Up’s then-chief executive, John R. Albers. ”I’ll be honest. It’s a failure.”

I would dare call it an unmitigated disaster, and with the product development angle that 7-Up marketing strategists took, I’m surprised it didn’t cause serious deterioration of the 7-Up brand in the marketplace. The major problem with 7-Up’s 1988 introduction of 7-Up Gold was that it forced consumers to make a cataclysmic shift in their thinking about the 7-Up brand image and perception in general. Product marketers introduced 7-Up Gold with only brief test marketing, little more than rudimentary taste-testing. Gold faced an uphill struggle from the get-go. One problem was that 7-Up Gold was caffeinated – an undesirable about-face on the 7-Up mantra “Never had it, never will.” Suddenly… it had it. And they lied to us.

Another problem was the product’s appearance. 7-Up was recognized as the “un-cola”, and in the consumer’s mind that obviously meant “not like cola” – clear in color, clean in taste. But 7-Up Gold had a reddish caramel hue. From the confused consumer’s point of view, it was no longer un-anything: it was just another cola.

The third problem was taste. The perceived 7-Up brand taste was clean, citrusy (lemon-lime), clear and crisp. 7-Up Gold tasted nothing like that… or even like anything else on the soft drink market at the time. A spiced, cinnamon-apple flavored soda, it was simply too new. However, 7-Up’s short marketing development taste-testing studies showed that people seemed to like the taste of Gold. But sadly, you can’t launch a new soda product on taste alone – for a new product, taste is an experience, not an impression. If the marketplace doesn’t understand the product, or see how it fits a defined brand, they simply will never try it. So they’ll never get to the taste experience.

In the consumer’s mind, the 7-Up brand had a defined “meaning” (thoughts and feelings that are evoked within a person when presented with a contextual sign). Gold was so out of bounds with the 7-Up brand that it destroyed the context. 7-Up had specific attributes that helped it establish a position in the marketplace – different color (clear), different taste (lemon-lime), different effect (non-caffeinated). But suddenly, those attributes were gone, and the 7-Up brand was now competing on the same level as Coke and Pepsi, who had years of dominance based on these particular attributes. Consumer confusion ran rampant, and took consumer confidence with it. The effect was a one-tenth of one percent market share, and to be honest, I’m surprised the product didn’t do more damage to the core of 7-Up’s brand equity.

Brand image is a powerful concept, a powerful associator, and a powerful motivator. So powerful that not even $10 million in advertising could change it. “…the idea of a dark-colored, caffeinated 7-Up was the hurdle most consumers never cleared.” (NYTimes.com)

The power of brand image and perception can also be seen in other similar failed product launches. In 1985 the Coca-Cola company reformulated their iconic recipe and introduced “New Coke” on the consumer public. But the consumer public was not happy. To brand loyalists and soda drinkers in general, Coke was just right the way it was (embodying intense product-related brand equity). Consumer outrage, and plummeting sales, forced Coke to return to their original formula, re-introduced as Coke Classic. This re-release and return to their core product attributes caused sales to surge, and some speculated that the entire program was a marketing ploy. But Coca-Cola doesn’t strike me as the type of company that would purposely risk a level of consumer outrage (and brand dissolve) just to fix the problem and win back our hearts. What if our hearts were broken permanently?

Another example of how brand perception can control consumer thinking is McDonald’s introduction of the Arch Deluxe sandwich line in 1996. These sandwiches were marketed to adults “with more sophisticated palates.” The name, the ingredients, the market positioning – and the price – was “deluxe.” The problem was that the name “McDonald’s” and the term “sophisticated” caused major consumer brand disconnect. McD’s is convenient. It is, dare I say, cheap and fast. It is not sophisticated. This brand disconnect, along with a poor nutritional score, caused lackluster sales of the Arch Deluxe. It has since been completely phased out of McDonald’s menu.

Just as 7-Up Gold tried to bend consumer brand perception – to disastrous results – it’s easy to see from these examples of other failed marketing ideas that brand image and brand equity is powerful to possess… but difficult to work against.

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