Generic is . . . Cool! Did Tropicana Make a Mistake?

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Last week I wrote about the dramatic decision by Pepsico and Tropicana to scrap their new package design in a post entitled “The Future of Orange Juice?” and the subject has continued to be all the rage on the Internet. In a February 28, 2009 article in Brand Week entitled “Top of Mind: Tropicana Scrapped A Terrific Redesign” by Todd Wasserman. Mr. Wasserman’s article presents an interesting theory on the Tropicana redesign and the strategy, which it evolved from, here is an excerpt. Let’s face it, the most obvious thing about PepsiCo’s $35 million redesign of its Tropicana orange juice brand in January was that it made the venerable orange juice look like a private label-brand—granted, a really nice looking one, but a private-label brand nonetheless. This was a brilliant strategy. The whole idea behind the repackaging was to reinforce the idea of value, and there was no better way to do that than by making Tropicana pretend to be a half-gallon of Safeway’s O Organic brand.

Consumers recognize such brands for value, of course, but consumer packaged goods manufacturers are realizing that some shoppers actually prefer store brands because generic is . . . cool, these days.

trop-newOnly recently have most retailers begun to take their private-label brands seriously, which means that they were able to jump on the most modern design trends—if only by default. It’s the branding equivalent of the old story about what happened to East Germany after the Berlin Wall came down: The once-divided city soon boasted the most advanced telecom system in the world because it could start from scratch in 1989 rather than trying to update relays built in 1910. This is why most good private-label brands look a lot hipper on their shelves (and yours, for that matter) than the ones that the CPG giants developed in 1950, tweaked in 1977 and are afraid to mess with further in 2009. For evidence, I submit the Whole Foods 365 design for egg carton, which is a thing of beauty better suited for the Museum of Modern Art gift shop than the diary aisle. So it’s plain to see why private labels have the upper hand, marketing-wise. Let’s not forget that business-wise, retailers would much prefer that you buy their brands and that, in a recession, they’re only going to push those brands all the harder. Witness Wal-Mart’s stated recommitment to its Great Value brand, which will get new packaging and more marketing dollars from Bentonville’s coffers. For CPGs, it doesn’t make sense to keep swimming against the tide. So many of those brands are based on the model of the 1950s, when Leo Burnett (the man and the agency) created icons like Tony the Tiger and the Jolly Green Giant in order to sell packaged foods. It made sense back then, when TV was the only form of mass media that really counted and moms weren’t yet hip to the fact that good ol’ Tony was feeding their kids three teaspoons of sugar with each bowl.

But in 2009, it’s a losing strategy. That’s why Tropicana was on the right track when it dumped the old packaging and ushered in something new and different. It was bold, but then Pepsi showed how risk-averse it really is when it turned tail a month later. Will others learn from Pepsi’s “mistake?” I’m afraid they will. Brand managers will look at what happened with Tropicana and hold off any bold initiatives. But they shouldn’t. Because just as the recession is likely to change the economic geography of this country, it will change the landscape of supermarket aisles as well.



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Christopher Durham
Christopher Durham is the president of My Private Brand and the co-founder of The Vertex Awards. He is a strategist, author, consultant and retailer who built brands at Delhaize-owned Food Lion, and lead strategy and brand development for Lowe’s Home Improvement. He has consulted with retailers around the world on their private brand portfolios including: Family Dollar, Petco, Staples, Office Depot, Best Buy, Metro (Canada), TLW (Taiwan) and Hola (Taiwan). Durham has published five definitive books on private brands, including his first book, Fifty2: The My Private Brand Project. In 2017, he will debut his newest book, Vanguard: Vintage Originals, a visual tour of innovation and disruption in private brand going back to the mid-1800’s. Dynamic in his presentation while down to earth and frank in his opinions, he has presented at numerous conferences, including FUSE, The Dieline Conference, Packaging that Sells, Omnishopper and PLMA’a annual trade show in Chicago. Durham lives in Charlotte, NC with his wife, Laraine, and two daughters, Olivia and Sarah.