Skilled marketers and branding experts are reeling from consumer outrage, amplified by social media, toward branding changes. The consumer is always right – or are they?
SEATTLE, WASHINGTON, USA – January 11, 2010 – Starbucks, in a move to show it has expanded beyond basic coffee offerings, shed the Starbucks name, the iconic ring and stars from its well-known logo last week, in an announcement that drew some surprising anger and nastiness from consumers.
Strategically, the move makes plenty of sense: the company wants to sell more than just coffee. And visually, the ring doesn’t work without the word coffee in it. So the company is sticking with the Mermaid, which is really the only fully ownable visual element of their identity.
Yet consumers, now able to loudly share preferences and opinions on social channels, feel they are somehow being cheated – often treating business decisions and corporate marketers with extreme derision. Reacting to the Starbucks logo change, one Facebook fan wrote: “If it ain’t broke, leave it the f-alone!”
As a branding specialist, my instant reaction is, what could possibly elicit such an amazingly entitled and wildly overblown stance from a consumer toward a marketing team — over a logo?!?
And on the Starbucks corporate blog, MimiKatz, wrote: ”Who’s the bonehead in your marketing department that removed the world-famous name of Starbucks Coffee from your new logo? This gold card user isn’t impressed!”
So…in your mind, your loyalty program membership entitles you to more of a say than experienced marketing professionals who have tied their living to knowing and building this brand? What are you going to do — ditch the gold card?
Other brands have recently gone through similar experiences. In October, 2010, The Gap decided to make a change, only to find itself lambasted in the social space by “outraged consumers.”
My branding brain says, “retained the familiar blue box to maintain some level of continuity with the past: check. Kept the blue for the same reason but made it less masculine: check. Placed black text on white to improve readability and printability, allowing it to degrade gracefully as the size is reduced: check. Used a more approachable, humanistic font: check.”
Yet one 24-year-old Facebook user stated “The original Gap logo is classic and iconic. By changing it, you’ve completely destroyed what it took 20-plus years to build.”
Whatever you think of the aesthetics of the new design, which was quickly retracted, it fascinated me to consider that “outrage” was generated in a consumer space where we are bombarded by tens of thousands of logos on an annual basis. Others have also noticed the irony, asking the same question: Gap Rage? Really?
Earlier, in February 2009, Tropicana redesigned its packaging and met the same response. According to Fast Company, “outraged Tropicana loyalists have been flooding the blogs for months to protest the brand’s lackluster redesign, calling it everything from ‘ugly’ to ‘stupid’ to ‘generic.'” There’s that O-word again. In many cases, consumers said the design change was radical enough to make the package far more difficult to find on the shelves. Now that is a credible reason to rethink your packaging. PepsiCo, which owns the Tropicana brand, also retracted the changes when faced with this market reaction.
What’s creating outrage against change?
Both culturally and professionally, this behavior fascinates me. What creates this rage?
I’d suggest that consumers are, in general, struggling with the overall pace of societal change, and that has filtered down to changes to the familiar or mundane. As technological and cultural change accelerates algorithmically, consumers are wanting or needing the foundations of their lives — including simple things like the logos of the products they buy — to remain constant and to provide some level of certainty. Yet the one certainty is that nothing is certain, and change happens. It’s natural.
Simultaneously, trust in marketing and advertising continues to falter, and this is one area where consumers can safely vent without getting into REALLY outrageous topics, like this. Perhaps those are just too much to process. I know that I struggle to make sense of it, let alone know what to say or who to say it to. Maybe packaging and logo changes give consumers something easier to get outraged about.
Perhaps the recession has also created cuts in consumer testing of design candidates. Or maybe they worked great in testing but flopped with the larger audience.
Listen: yes. Grovel: no.
I am a huge believer in the concept of The Customer-Focused Enterprise, as well as the adoption of consumer preferences and demands into the value chain. Hell, that’s what I do for a living. But in my opinion, that doesn’t mean that consumer resistance to change should always override smart marketing or branding efforts. Businesses change and move forward and shed their look from time to time. Of course marketers should be cognizant of consumer desires. But unhappy consumers can also focus myopically on the ridiculous, and their voices can be amplified tremendously through social tools. That means that enterprises should not necessarily reconsider smart, carefully thought-through decisions when this occurs.
People are being hit and killed by distracted, texting drivers. Others are threatening and committing suicide on Facebook and having no one come to their aid. Your jobless neighbors are freezing to death under the freeway overpass you drive across.
Imagine what a better world it would be if we focused our outrage where it matters.
My advice to clients: listen to and engage with your customers, and partner with them in the operation of your company. But recognize that the current cultural zeitgeist may be generating an inordinate amount of animosity toward changes to your brand — and that you as a smart marketer or branding specialist have an equally valid and often times more strategic perspective.
In a nutshell, your family and friends will often give you advice. Do you always do everything they suggest?