What Product Managers Can Learn From The Tropicana Mistake

The Tropicana Product Manager Made A Bad Decision
The Tropicana Product Manager Made A Bad Decision

In the world of product mangers, there are some events that are only spoken about in hushed tones. Examples of product manager decisions that, when seen in the rear view mirror of time, just seem so very, very wrong that you wonder why the decision was ever made. Up until now the poster product for this kind of MAJOR screw-up has always been new Coke. However, someone has taken its place – Tropicana.

The Problem

The Tropicana company sells orange juice. They’ve got a big problem with their product: you can’t see the juice that you are buying. It’s pretty much the only prominent orange juice brand that is NOT sold in a transparent bottle.

The Solution

In order to solve this problem, Tropican reached to marketing and design guru Peter Arnell. Arnell has a long list of successful product designs to his credit including DKNY, Tommy Hilfiger and The Home Depot. He has an approach to branding that he calls PowerBranding that he has developed and uses with his customers. He’s quite good at what he does.

For Topicana, Arnell added a picture of a glass of orange juice to the front of the carton. Now you could see the product. Sounds like a winner, eh?

Old Tropicana Design -> New Tropicana Design

The Fallout

Well, the new product packaging design went over like a lead balloon. The public was outraged – the Internet blew up with critics and not satisfied with just bashing the new design, folks also went after Arnell. What was up with this?

It turns out that Tropicana customers had some very deep associations with the way that the product looked. With the new design, something that had been so very familiar was all of a sudden very strange. There’s no arguing that the new design was well thought out (new Coke was well thought out also), but  the product manager had not asked customers the key question: is it ok if I change the design?

Lessons Learned

Not all products have this kind of bonding with their customers, but it’s the responsibility of the product manger to check – you wouldn’t want to become the next Tropicana-like disaster.

Questions For You

Have you ever had to change your product’s packaging design? Did you check with your customers first? Was there any negative reaction? What did you do about angry customers? Leave me a comment and let me know what you are thinking.

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Coming Up Next Time

So if you could wear anything that you wanted to work, what would it be? Would you be showing up in shorts and flip-flops? How about jeans and a T-shirt? Well why don’t you? The answer to this question is something that we normally don’t spend a lot of time thinking about, but because it can have a big impact on our careers, perhaps we should…

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13 thoughts on “What Product Managers Can Learn From The Tropicana Mistake”

  1. Arnell also worked on Gatorade’s update. Have you tried to find Gatorade in the store? The word Gatorade is so small as to be unreadable at more than a few inches and has been replaced by a giant G2! It took me several minutes to figure it out, by which time I had put Powerade in my grocery cart.

    Sometimes changing a product because a designer thinks it’s cool may not be the best for your product.

    • John: good point. They were running those “G2” ads on TV and I had no idea what they were talking about. A lot of money has been invested in making Gatorade a household name, I’m not sure why they were willing to throw that away. At the very least, don’t you think that they could have introduced “G2” as a new product instead of a rebranding?

  2. This is a good story. What I dont’ get is that Tropicana went from a very distinctive and evocative (straw in the orange) package to something incredibly bland and boring and undifferentiated. The “new” package looks like some generic brand of OJ.

    I wonder what testing they did that led them to think that the new design was significantly better than the original.

    They should have utilized one of the key Product Management Axioms:

    Change is a process, not an event.

    Read more here http://tr.im/art_axioms

    • Saeed: good point. I think that this is a clear case of a company hiring a “star” designer and then being too afraid to speak up when nobody understood what he had created…!

  3. I tend to disagree with your statement ” …. the product manager had not asked customers the key question: is it ok if I change the design?”

    I think asking existing customers if it is OK to change anything will most likely result in a “No” answer because customers are typically set in their ways and don’t want anything to be changed. If Dunkin Donuts or McDonald’s had asked me if they could change their logos, I would probably say No. But now that I see the new look of their new stores with a nicer looking logo, it looks pretty modern compared to what it used to be before.

    Given that we don’t know what exactly transpired at Tropicana, the questions in my mind are the following:
    1) How much testing did they do with their new packaging to get reactions from consumers before they completely changed it ?
    2) Did they selectively test the new packaging in select markets?
    3) Did they selectively test in select markets using a mixture of old and new packaging and see if the old packaging was selling more of it?

    Results indicate that probably not enough was done. Given the online networks we have at our disposal, it would have been so easy for Tropicana to solicit the pros and cons of the new design compared to the old. Companies such as Communispace are set up to create communities for things such as these.

    Hence, I think it is their methodology that needs to be questioned as opposed to the product manager not having asked the question of “is it ok to change the design.”

    I totally agree with you that “this could have been the case of a company hiring a “star” designer and then being too afraid to speak up when nobody understood what he had created…!”.

    Moral of the story – just because someone is great does not necessarily mean that they always make the right decision.

    • Gopal: the classic lesson from the new Coke disaster is that you can’t always trust your customer to tell you what they want (people said that they wanted new Coke). I think that we’re saying the same thing here – Tropicana should have done (more) test marketing and listened to what its customers told it. You would think, based on the strong and immediate backlash that they got, that a pilot market would have quickly shown them that this was a very bad idea…!

  4. The genius of the straw in the orange was that it affiliated the product with a real, unprocessed orange… as if you were practically buying fresh oranges… only in a convenient-to-carry and consume package.

    Showing a glass of juice is robs the buyer of that… we know we’re buying juice. I (the consumer) would buy real oranges if they were as easily transported and consumed as is the juice. With the glass of juice shown, the product is removed an additional layer from orange grove.

    Perhaps they forgot what their packaging was selling, or, more to the point, what the consumers were buying. It wasn’t juice. Nor the fact the product consists of only juice. The old packaging sold us fresh orange groves. They were selling the freshness of real oranges… in a carton… not juice.


    • Randal: that’s a great point – the orange was the thing that jumped out of the old package design. The straw running through it just drove home the “freshness”. Good observation!

      • If they wanted to improve upon the concept while still selling the same product (idea), they could have shown a freshly sliced orange, dripping with juice, as an “improvement” on the original design. Even so, the original design is compelling enough that an improvement will have difficulty overcoming the iconic image of a freshly picked orange with a straw.

        A raised, textured carton to make the orange and the straw seem even more real would have also supported long-standing icon… while bringing the buyer even closer to the real-orange scenario that they are theoretically buying. Assuming their production engineers could make such a thing happen, of course.

        Great topic.


  5. As Organic Valley how their new branding is coming along.

    Comment about it on FaceBook and have your post deleted.

    Same mistake Tropicana made, only this time worse, IMO.

    • Rich: You would think that these guys would watch what happens to their competition and learn from it. However, it looks like we’re all doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again…

  6. Organic Valley is about to make the same mistake as Tropicana with a new milk carton that looks like a generic. Has pictures of people on it, who aren’t missing! LOL!


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