Never Underestimate the Need of Branding Research to Avoid Marketing Blunders

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Last year PepsiCo received a lot of “buzz” thanks to a couple of marketing stumbles for two of its big brands, Tropicana and Gatorade. In both cases, the brands got makeovers that stripped their brand identity, for the sake of simplicity, and gave them a quite generic look. This resulted in confused consumers, which, in turn, hurt sales. In the case of Tropicana, after consumers’ protest, PepsiCo reinstated the old packaging with the familiar orange with the straw. But for Gatorade, now called “G,” PepsiCo continued ahead with the new packaging and label.

According to PepsiCo’s Americas Beverages chief Massimo d’Amore, who was interviewed by the WJS, in the case of Gatorade, certain level of confusion was expected, but that internal research indicated that “the ‘G’ campaign scores high in the coolness factor.”

For a while I wondered what type of research they did, who was the target sample and what metrics were used to measure success. Luck would have it that I had the chance this year to meet Jimmy Smith, the creator of the “G” TV commercials. He told me that the ads were targeting teenagers between 13 and 17 and they were looking to create buzz, which they did. I admit that “coolness” is likely to be an important driver in this market segment, but can misfire in other segments. I have proof in my own household. My husband, a fan of Gatorade and part of the 37.7% of consumers in the age group 35-44 who drink Gatorade monthly*, was certainly lost once the packaging changed. He thought that the new “G” packaging was one of Walmart’s store brands.

In July 2009, Beverage Digest estimated that Gatorade had lost a 4.5% share of the sports-drink market and its volume slipped 17.5% in the first six months of 2009 after the launch of the new packaging in January. It seems that the “coolness” factor may have worked against Gatorade’s brand equity.

So, if you ever get involved in a brand makeover or new packaging re-design make sure to do branding research that allows to measure the overall impact of the changes on the brand recognition and sales. The best approach to branding research combines both qualitative and quantitative techniques. Neither alone gives a solid answer, so I would suggest to consider following this research plan:

  1. Define the problem. First, make sure it is an image problem and not a problem with the product or service. Does the brand need an updated look to attract new market segments? Does the brand elicit negative associations due to blunders from the past and need a fresh start? Does the brand need to be aligned with a new vision and mission for the company? The answers to these questions will define how much of a radical makeover your brand can afford without alienating customers.

  2. Explore current brand perceptions, usage patterns, customer experience, and problem areas. This will give you a feel for the brand legacy and how much you can depart from it. Depending on your target market and budget, some of the data collection techniques you can use might include focus groups, in-depth interviews, or on-site research (ethnography).

  3. Create several new brand concepts and test them. Use the results from the initial qualitative research to develop different branding concepts. Explore initial reactions to the concepts, fine-tune them, and test them again using qualitative techniques.

  4. Follow-up with quantitative research. Use a large enough sample to select a winner and project the results to your target population. Define the screening criteria of your sample carefully. To certain market segments, some brand attributes may be more relevant than to others, so make sure all segments are represented to avoid biased results.

The combination of qualitative and quantitative research techniques will give you in-depth insight and a solid foundation for decision making. Don’t be tempted to only run a couple of focus groups or an online survey and feel you know everything. Conducting branding research with the right approach will pay off and prevent you from making mistakes that will hurt your bottom line.

* SMRB – Summer 2009 Adult 6 Months (Feb 09 – Sept 09)

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