What Tropicana's $30 Million Mistake Teaches us About Visual Identity Design

blog brand plan template brand purpose brand tuned brand values branding branding strategy design graphic designer rebranding Jun 10, 2022

As an outsider in the design industry, I notice things that may not be obvious to those on the inside. 

One such observation is that branding courses curated by designers don’t include training on visual identity design. The upshot is that graphic designers do not generally appreciate the downsides to changing the identifiers by which their clients’ brands are recognised. I know from personal experience that they are quick to discard the existing logo, colours, and symbols that a business is using instead of respecting the need not to radically change its look and feel.  

Tropicana Packaging Redesign  

As is apparent from the way the Tropicana packaging was updated, the underlying assumption seems to be that radical transformation is acceptable. There is little evidence that the designers considered the need to preserve the ‘face’ the business had been using for years in the Tropicana packaging redesign. 

While it’s true that people rarely consciously look at logos, bear in mind, that their shopping habits were formed years ago, and don't change, especially for essentials. So, when packaging suddenly changes in a big way, they notice in the sense that they don’t recognise that it’s the brand they’ve previously bought. It’s not because, as one designer suggested, that people don’t like change or that they were revolting. No. It’s simply that people didn’t recognise Tropicana on the shelf. 

The altered designs resulted in the loss of a fifth of their sales in a matter of weeks. People didn’t notice Tropicana anymore. The distinctive assets on the package such as the orange, straw, arched logo and orange banner at the top of the pack had all disappeared. It was especially difficult to see the Tropicana name because the logo had been turned 90 degrees.  

I find it astonishing in retrospect that my own logo, symbol, tagline and colours were so cavalierly discarded by the designer who ‘refreshed’ my brand. All I had engaged her to do was to present the various elements in a more aesthetically pleasing way. I was happy with my logo and colours, but as we had introduced a tagline and symbol and added them to the logo, I wanted a designer’s touch to make them all hang together in an elegant way. However, what I ended up with was a new logo, no symbol, a new tagline, and new colours. I assumed the designer knew best, so was happy enough and liked the new look. But now that I know so much more about branding, and the importance of not making radical changes to one’s logo and colours, I feel a sense of loss that my old branding was changed so radically. I loved my colours, and in hindsight, I think my old logo was more distinctive. 

I would expect the design industry to respect the role of design in identifying a brand, rather than treating existing assets as expendable or alterable as the Tropicana designers clearly did. 

Imagine if an acquaintance of yours had plastic surgery, altered their hairstyle and hair colour. You would probably pass them by in the street and not recognise them. It’s well-known that the human brain doesn’t scrutinise every detail of its surroundings. Our brains are hardwired to conserve energy. So, when we’re choosing which brands to buy, many aspects of our decisions are made in auto pilot mode.  

A brand’s name and consistent look and feel play a crucial role in enabling buyers to recognise that it’s us. We all lead busy lives, and are exposed to dozens of brands daily. It’s the distinctive branding, such as our brand name, logo, symbols, music, colours, slogans that bring our brand to mind, and identify us. Surely, people from the visual industry should know this.  

Distinctiveness 

If they appreciated it, I would expect them to whole-heartedly embrace the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute’s findings about the importance of distinctiveness. The Institute effectively reminds us of the crucial role visual identity plays in branding. Distinctiveness is what makes a brand unique and inimitable because it is about the elements that can be legally protected, and therefore uniquely identify a brand. 

Yet branding courses I’ve attended rarely focus on distinctiveness. Instead they purely discuss differentiation which doesn’t endure long term, and is not part of the natural core skillset of designers either. Failing to teach the importance of distinctiveness perpetuates the problem that designers are not understanding the role of visual design in branding. Otherwise, they would surely know to only make changes to a brand’s look and feel if it was essential to do so. Even then, they would first run tests to establish how much recognition a given identifier that they intend to discard has garnered. 

Writing the modules for the Brand Tuned Accreditation program has brought this up for me. It’s been like writing a second edition of the book. And it’s reminded me of the journey I’ve been on since deciding to write a book about branding 3-4 years ago.  

Brand Tuned Book 

Before the current Brand Tuned book emerged, I had written a book proposal for a book on branding by taking part in a book proposal challenge. I’d taken up the publisher’s offer to copy-edit my book provided it was written within 6 weeks. But after writing the first draft I decided to abandon the book. The manuscript reflected what I knew about branding then, but I wanted to start over with a new proposal because I didn’t feel the book sat on a solid foundation of fact. It didn’t have any new insights about branding.  

It took me nearly another year to write a new proposal and sign up with a publisher to write what ultimately became the Brand Tuned book. My new proposal was completely different to the contents of the abandoned manuscript because by then I had discovered Byron Sharp and Jenni Romaniuk’s works about how brands grow and the importance of distinctive brand assets in making brands memorable. 

Their work at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute is based on solid well-respected research and reinforced my misgivings about the way the role of intellectual property is marginalised in branding, which had been the initial impetus for my wanting to write a book about branding. The fact that the industry is giving insufficient attention to distinctiveness explains why IP isn’t being properly addressed too. 

I’m pleased that my Brand Tuned book discussed cases like Tropicana and explained how IP is intertwined with branding.  

However, although I was aware that branding is a minefield with conflicting advice and multiple disciplines, I now realise that my book hadn’t eliminated use of unnecessary jargon. 

Branding Concepts and Buzzwords 

There is too much folklore, hype, pop psychology and jargon in branding. But I did not then know what I know now, namely that concepts and buzzwords in widespread use all essentially involve and mean the same thing. So instead of brand positioning people talk about: 

  • brand values 
  • brand purpose 
  • the value proposition 
  • brand DNA particularly if it’s a luxury brand 
  • core attributes 
  • brand promise 
  • brand personality 
  • brand essence 

While brand consultants argue that these concepts mean different things so that they feel justified in using a whole range of them, I have it on good authority from Mark Ritson that that’s nonsense. 

The point of positioning, and these other words people use as alternatives for it, is that you’re working out what you want your brand to stand for to your target market. So, you should just choose one term to describe that endeavour instead of using multiple terminologies. When we don’t use words consistently and draw fine distinctions between words that mean the same thing we just confuse everyone, including our teams.  

Less is more. So deciding which term you personally favour, be it brand purpose or brand DNA, or positioning and then sticking to using just that one construct is something I have now incorporated into the Brand Tuned Accreditation program. The need to do so became apparent to me when I looked to include a Brand Plan template in the course. 

Brand Plan Template 

I searched for templates to inspire my thinking and reviewed the suggested Brand Plan template that came with one of the design courses I’d attended. However, when I tested it for my own brand it was totally unusable. There were too many fields: such as on brand promise, brand values, brand personality, attributes and benefits, and brand positioning. No wonder branding is so confusing for people! 

If I had so much trouble getting to grips with this brand plan template, despite all my reading and learning about branding before and after writing my book, is it any wonder ordinary business owners, graphic designers, marketers, lawyers and others have a hard time understanding what is involved to create a brand? 

Demystifying Branding: Need For Training 

It’s high time we demystified branding and exposed all the hype and jargon for what it is. Writing the modules for the Brand Tuned Accreditation program has been highly enjoyable as I have put right what I now see was missing in the Brand Tuned book and deepened my thinking about branding. 

I believe the foundation for working on brand strategy projects of established brands is to learn what’s involved to create a new brand even if you just work on big brand strategy projects. That’s because you need to develop an understanding of naming, slogans/taglines, symbols/icons, music, and colours. The Tropicana disaster is just one example of what can go wrong when designers don’t appreciate what distinctiveness is all about. It is not just a synonym for differentiation either as so many people wrongly assume. 

So, consider joining the Brand Tuned Accreditation program to plug the gap in your knowledge. It provides comprehensive, accessible learning on how to create a brand taking intellectual property and distinctiveness into account. There is a separate version of the program for those who only want the IP and distinctiveness modules. Right now, there is a special introductory half-price offer. But it won’t be there for much longer, so look into joining the program today. 

In the meantime, in the latest episode of the Brand Tuned podcast I was able to catch up with Ulli Applebaum, an experienced award-winning brand strategist and author of the Brand Positioning Workbook. Listen in for his views on how to position a brand.