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Maslansky: How Tropicana Lost The Juice In Its Packaging "Failure"

Wednesday, 4 Mar 2009 | 10:56 AM ET

How many companies are dying to get their customers to pay more attention to them?

How many CEOs would give their private jet for some clear guidance from their loyal customers about the best path to take?

How many marketers are aching for a way to get in on the “social media thing” and start a real dialogue with their target audience?

The answer is easy: a lot.

And that’s exactly why I wish the folks at Tropicana had recognized that their recent packaging “crisis” wasn’t even a crisis at all. It was a tremendous opportunity...in a new, sleeker carton.

First, nothing bad happened here. There was no product safety issue like Mattel had with lead in their toys. There was no one caught doing illegal drugs like with Michael Phelps and Kellogg’s . And there wasn’t even an angry mob of baby-carrying moms feeling insulted like Motrin had to handle late last year after a bold ad campaign backfired.

Instead, Tropicana was faced with a group of silent but loyal customers who just wanted their old packaging back. I can tell you from years of helping companies communicate issues much trickier than this that communicators and marketers should dream of having problems this innocuous.

Second, this issue was created by customers who were essentially professing their love for the Tropicana brand. No one was threatening to boycott the product over this change; they just didn’t want their beloved product in a package they didn’t like. Think about it: when was the last time that people paid this much attention to orange juice or gave it this much news coverage?

Third, this uproar started on the web. Tropicana didn’t have to build a population that wanted to talk about this issue; they already had one.

There is no question that the people at Tropicana’s parent company, Pepsi, would have preferred a flawless packaging launch. And there is no question that they made the right decision in pulling the packaging. But, when the firestorm began, there was an opportunity to turn thing around and create positive earned media that could have taken made up for a good chunk of the $35 million spent on the repackaging.

When it comes to communicating an issue like this, there are some basic rules we tell our clients to follow. When something of this magnitude goes wrong, you have to fight basic instincts and think more strategically about how you can turn a communication crisis into a communication catalyst.

Here are three simple things Tropicana could have done to better position themselves:

1. Don’t get defensive. When this kind of time, money, and reputation is involved, the first reaction is to circle the wagons and either pretend it will go away or to fight back. But today, that just doesn’t work. There is simply no way for companies to defend their “mistakes” in the face of modern media scrutiny because editors love a good corporate flop almost as much as a good corporate scandal. And no one is going to come to the defense of a company with good intentions but poor or misguided execution. In trying to explain why this happened, Pepsi and Tropicana couldn’t hope to win over critics, they could only try not to lose loyal customers.

Instead of going on defense, they could have changed the conversation. After all, if you have tons of loyal customers telling you they wanted you to go back to something they loved, how is that a bad thing? Customers loved the Tropicana product; that’s half the battle. And, they didn’t want to see it changed. I would have advised Tropicana to flip the issue on its head, thank their customers, and run with the energy and emotion. For corporate communicators, this is exactly the kind of crisis many of us should be looking for. When things head south, if we’re not finding ways to reframe the debate and change the conversation to our advantage, we’re doing something terribly wrong. As Rahm Emmanuel recently said, “never let a crisis go to waste.”

2. Laugh at yourself and move on. Just like the kid who stumbles in the cafeteria, the best way to recover from a fall is to laugh it off. Tropicana could have turned the whole escapade into a joke and used the media attention to give people reasons to come to their site. Instead of trying to fix the packaging pictures on the site to pretend the problem never existed, they could and should emphasize the mistake. They could talk about the lessons learned and even make fun of the packaging themselves. Imagine if they had said something like, “We thought people liked the juice…turns out, it’s the box they’re after.”

Trying to erase the past doesn’t work anymore because there is no such thing—the minute it’s public, it’s public forever. Someone somewhere has screen shots or cached versions of the site. We’ve seen the packages in stores. It’s better to be out front and honest about it because, in the end, your customers will respect you more for owning the problem rather than trying to pretend it never existed.

3. Give your customers a voice. If a bunch of loyal customers are engaged enough to go online and make a fuss about the new packaging, why not ask them to help create a better idea for where to take things. Create a contest that ensures that the best elements of the packaging (the orange with straw and bright colors) remain, while the cartons still get a new, fresh look. Doritos did it…why can’t sister company Tropicana do it? When you get people engaged, especially after something like this, it not only serves as a silent apology, it also makes them feel like you really do care about their opinions, their input, and most importantly, their business.

Now that consumers have taken so much control over the brand conversation, it is inevitable that the number of customer rebellions like this one will grow. The traditional responses of fight or flight no longer work. Instead, companies must learn to engage in these situations and see them for what they usually are…great opportunities to deepen the dialogue with customers. If they don’t, they risk getting squeezed out of the conversation entirely.

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Michael Maslansky is CEO of Luntz, Maslansky Strategic Research, a corporate and public affairs market research firm that specializes in language and messaging. Michael has conducted extensive research to understand how to most effectively communicate about issues, brands and products.

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