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Pepsi people power

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Monday, Feb 23, 2009

Jason Kottke linked to this New York Times article by Stuart Elliott about PepsiCo deciding to reverse course on its rebranding of its Tropicana orange juice line. (AdPulp and Rob Walker noted it also.) I have no investment in the designs at stake here and don’t prefer either one. I don’t even buy Tropicana juice unless it’s the cheapest on offer. (A related but tangential question: Whatever happened to frozen orange juice? It’s rarely available and tends to be more expensive than the stuff in the carton everywhere but Aldi. Is this because shipping has become cheaper, rendering concentrated juice unnecessary? I want to feel like a thrifty “new consumer” by reconstituting frozen orange juice, but I am being thwarted!)


But what’s interesting about this is the way the internet is being used as a huge marketing focus group by brand managers. This seems cost-efficient (the company says the reversion costs will not be “significant”), as long as companies are willing to be regarded as having made mistakes like this in public. But rather than seem foolish or indecisive, PepsiCo. seems likely to come out ahead from this in a publicity standpoint. The Tropicana brand makes it into the edit pages of publications for free; the company is portrayed as being extremely open and responsive to its customers and somewhat technologically savvy to boot. The article cites a PepsiCo rep, sounding quite pleased with the whole contretemps:


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.”


Being open to public comment on packaging changes may in fact be a way of building “brand communities” online, as it gives an inchoate group of unaffiliated consumers something to rally around:


“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.”


Campbell admitted that there earlier market research had revealed that it wasn’t the case that Tropicana buyers “necessarily had a huge connection” to its old packaging. Well, they seem to now.


Rob Walker figures that “Probably this story will largely be positioned as an example of the enhanced power of consumers to complain — the NYT story is full of the usual email-and-Facebook examples, etc. And maybe that’s partly true.” I agree but think that the power ultimately rests with the companies, not consumers, who after all are still investing their energy in someone else’s product. “Activist consumers” who agitate about product design are still consumers, in fact their are even more invested in their roles as consumers. Maybe that is not the worst thing in the world, but my philosophical presupposition is that the “consumer” role is ultimately confining, blinding us to the existential possibilities outside of shopping.


My conspiratorial mind, of course, assumes that these sorts of brand fauxs pas, since they may ultimately serve to be useful for a company, will come to be increasingly staged as a means for facilitating more consumer engagement with brands—an elaboration of the recent tactic of encouraging consumers to make their own ads. Campbell told the NYT that the logo was changed because criticism came from the company’s “most loyal consumers.” That they bother to complain is precisely what makes them loyal. Others would probably just buy something else without a second thought. Myself, I would prefer to be one of those others.

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