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Important Survival Lessons from Dead Brands

I see dead brands

“Of all the things that your company owns, brands are far and away the most important and the toughest. Founders die. Factories burn down. Machinery wears out. Inventories get depleted. Technology becomes obsolete. Brand loyalty is the only sound foundation on which business leaders can build enduring, profitable growth,” says Jim Mullen, founder of Mullen Advertising. So often, business leaders fail to understand this and stick to what they know, which is to continue to withdraw on their brand loyalty oblivious of the dangers that surround them. Many dead brands can teach us a lesson.

There are thousands of brands that have come and gone and hundreds that are the walking dead. Learning from mistakes is always harder than justifying enormous brand successes. Shifting a brand into a new direction is hard, expensive, risky and terrifying. No wonder few brands can do it. The brand graveyard is full of exciting lessons of how indecision, denial, arrogance and fear killed a brand.

Here are six essential survival lessons to keep your brand from ending up dead:

Brand Experience

Brand loyalty isn’t what it used to be. There was a day, people who drove a Ford drove Fords their whole lives. Not anymore. Yet mobile phone companies like Apple and Samsung see customers stick with them from phone to phone. The problem is keeping up with customer’s expectations. There is no shortage of new and exciting brands. According to Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, there are over 30,000 new produced launched every year. The choices are endless. With the help of the internet, the world is your oyster. You can quickly compare prices, performance, brand value, and user experiences 24/7, including one-click to buy.

In 2018, NewVoiceMedia’s ‘Serial Switchers’ reported brands lost more than $75 billion due to poor customer service. If the brand experience isn’t highly personalized and relevant, and delivering highly customized experiences online and offline, be afraid. Customers are looking and expecting memorable, multidisciplinary, multisensory brand experiences that touch them along their journey. Brands that fail to embrace the concept that every brand touch-point builds brand loyalty are closer to their demise.

Brands that are desperate to save money start by cutting front-line service or implementing customer-hostile business models; these brands generally don’t last long. Consumer advocate Christopher Elliot identified two such dead brands: US Airways and Blockbuster.

Before US Airways demise (2015), it went through a significant downsizing and outsourced many customer service functions. Customer’s reviews on Skytrax gave them a 4 out of 10, and CustomerService Scoreboard gave them 34 out of 200 possible points with an overall rating of “Terrible.” Blockbuster wasn’t much better with a 38 out of 200 with a similar score.

Innovate or Die

Every brand’s survival mantra must be — innovate or die. Innovation comes in many forms: product changes, new use patterns, production efficiency, service improvements, digital enhancements, new features and benefits, or more environmentally friendly inputs and uses.

No brand should be complacent. The speed of change will continue to exhilarate thanks in part to new technologies such as 5G, Blockchain, Voice technology, Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, 3D printing, Edge Computing, Spatial Computing (Mash-up of augmented, mixed and virtual reality AR, MR, VR), and Quantum Computing.

Brands must always be looking to improve or surpass customer’s ever-evolving expectations. Apple understands this in spades as they launch a new iPhone almost every year. Currently, the rumour is the Apple will be introducing a new 2020 iPhone model this fall, which could be called iPhone 12. How original.

In 2008 Nokia was ranked as one of the most valuable brands in the world. New Yorker writer James Surowieckisays Nokia failed to keep up with the competition in the smartphone game and relied on its past brand strengths. “The high-tech era has taught people to expect constant innovation; when companies fall behind, consumers are quick to punish them.” Nokia was severely punished and is dead when it comes to the mobile phone business.

PWC report that many brands don’t have an emerging technologies strategy at all, and aren’t monitoring them. They also determined that an entirely new business could be constructed using new emerging technologies with less investment than one-quarter of an existing IT maintenance budget. This new brand threat could be up and running in less than a year.

Today, it’s easy to build a brand on innovations and technologies. It’s much harder to sustain a brand on past innovations and successes. Kodak didn’t envision a future without film nor Blockbuster without VHS videos.

Shifting Audience

There was a day; all a brand had to do was keep the Baby Boomer happy — the most significant consumer base the world has ever seen. If a brand built a loyal Boomer consumer base, it was golden. The problem is that this demographic is getting older by the day, and their consumption pattern is shifting and declining drastically.

Many brands need to re-engineered to meet the expectations of the next significant consumer waves — the Millennials and Generation Z. Many new brand-breaking paradigms are causing considerable disruption like Uber, Airbnb, Amazon and Spotify. Rave Reviews state 78 percent of Millennials say that brands have to work harder to secure their loyalty. How brands guarantee dedication and commitment has changed significantly. Millennials are looking beyond traditional brand value and quality with higher expectations on transparency, sustainability, and innovation. Your brand must always prove itself worthy as Millennials, and Gen Z continuously monitors online reviews, influencers and social media before buying any brand.

I am sure many Millennials and Gen Z have never heard of such dead brands as Napster, Walkman, Palm, Compaq, and Enron.

Trend, Fad or Fiction

Times change, and so does consumer’s needs and wants. Make sure you know when your brand is a fad or just a passing whim.

Remember the Pet Rock? In 1975, Gary Dahl, an advertising executive, conceived and marketed rocks called Pet Rock. In less than a year, he rocked on to sell over 1.5 million Pet Rocks at $4 each. For a fleeting moment, he was a rock star, and then the Pet Rock disappeared forever. This brand was dead before you knew it.

Famous actor, filmmaker, author, and former politician and professional bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger was captivated by a convoy of military Humvees driving down a highway in 1989. Immediately, he had to have one. We know from history that Arnold always gets what he wants. AM General worked with General Motors to supply a civilian version called the famous Hummer. It was a great success as other affluent “Arnolds” stepped forward to have the privileged to feel the power of a tank stuck in traffic gridlock. Sales peaked in 2006, and the last Hummer H3 rolled off the line on May 24, 2010. High gas prices and the ever-increasing pressures by the environmental movement made the Hummer brand symbol unpalatable as a gas guzzler. Eventually, even Arnold sold his seven Hummers for a reported $950,000 to conform with other Californians. The Hummer brand was dead.

Remember Segway? The cool two-wheeled motorized self-balancing stand-up personal vehicle that allowed you to travel standing. Was this another Pet Rock? The problem was the Segway was expensive ($5,000), massive (over 100 pounds) and potentially dangerous. It wasn’t big enough to navigate the road with cars and wasn’t small enough to travel safely on the sidewalk. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos was quoted in the book Code Name Ginger stating, “I think this plan is dead on arrival.” The inventor Dean Kamen (nicknamed Ginger) was planning to sell half a million of these in a year. According to Forbes, they sold just 30,000 Segways in six years. As people continue to embrace a healthier lifestyle with more exercising like walking, the Segway looks like the laziest mode of transportation ever. Jeff Bezos was right; the Segway brand is dead.

Guts to Change

If you see your brand failing and the market changing, what do you do? Do you tinker with your business model that has been working for decades or, in some cases, centuries? Do you alienate your loyal customers by changing too much, too quickly?

Kodak and Blackberry are great examples of trying to stay in the past while trying to meet the future at the same time. Unfortunately, they both failed. Allen Adamson, Chairman of North America Landor Associates, explains that Kodak “failed to seize the day in terms of moving away from the existing cash cow to figure out how to live and fight the future.” Today, Blackberry is still trying to reinvent itself to find its vision. Meanwhile, all of its customers have replaced their “crackberry” with an iPhone or Samsung smartphone. Like Nokia, the Blackberry smartphone is dead.

Remember the Friday or Saturday evening trip to Blockbusters to rent a new movie release? The writing was on the wall as cable companies, internet providers, and Netflix offered seamless video streaming at home. But, Blockbusters stayed the course except for extending their late fees charging, which they accumulated over $800 million — something I don’t miss paying.

Many other brands (Circuit City, Future Shop, Olympus, Barnes & Noble, Borders, H&M, Taxis and retail stores, to name a few) face significant disruption from new technologies and digital innovations. Unless they embrace drastic changes, if they can, their destiny doesn’t look bright.

Bad Business Models

The fastest way for a brand to achieve death is not having a sound business model to ensure sustainable profits. The airline industry is notorious for building a new airline brand, then watching them fall from the sky (in some cases literally). Severin Borenstein, an economist at the Haas School of Business at U.C. Berkeley, says, “The industry in aggregate has lost about $60 billion over the 32 years since 1978. The biggest mistake they seem to make is not making money.”

Wikipedia has a list of defunct airlines by country. I counted over 430 USA airline brands, and over 105 Canadian airline brands no longer taking off. Remember, Eureka Aero, Mohawk Airlines, Zip, Greyhound Air, Roots Air or Pride Air? TWA, owned by Howard Hughes and Pan Am were the first airlines to fly around the world. They pioneered many innovations such as jumbo jets, computerized reservation systems, in-flight meals and much more. Sadly, they are both dead brands.

The automotive industry has a similar story, but theirs are less about the business model and more about production and quality issues, and costs. Check out the defunct USA auto list. The list is very long!

Do you remember the dot.com bubble? The stock markets went crazy with new internet companies that promised to change the world, with high valuations and no profits. At the time, losing money was a symbol of success. By October 2002, the Nasdaq stock market index had lost 78 percent of its value from the peak. By mid-2003, trillions of dollars on wealth vanished, and thousands of dot.com brands like Pets.com, GeoCites.com, TheGlobe.com, InfoSpace.com, LastMinute.com, Altavista.com, Kozmo.com, Boo.com, all disappeared. The lesson is you need a sustainable business model. Currently, its the weed brands that are learning this fact.

Today, many retail brands are heading into the same direction with colossal debt, poor customer service and no digital strategy. Too many dead brands.

Survive or Die

Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel, who made the company a microprocessor behemoth, wrote the book, Only the Paranoid Survive: How to Identify and Exploit the Crisis Points that Challenge Every Business. Written over 20 years ago, it is still very relevant to the concept of “inflection points.”

An inflection point is a point where you know that the industry in which your business operates in, has changed so profoundly that you can either change your business entirely as well or get killed by your competitors. The inflection could be a change in competition, a change in regulatory issues, a change in consumer habits, and a change in technology. He believed in taking action, doing something about it, staying ahead of times and winning at all costs even if it meant changing even his company’s core areas of business. “Most companies don’t die because they are wrong; most die because they don’t commit themselves,” says Grove. “They fritter away their valuable resources while attempting to make a decision. The greatest danger is in standing still.”

Death isn’t inevitable. There are many successful brands well over a hundred years. Some brands that came back from the dead and are flourishing today are Lego, Marvel comic books, Old Spice, Apple, Nintendo and Volkswagen.

In this new world of disruptive technologies and innovations, no brand is safe. Changes are being launched at lightning speed, copied overnight, and improved continuously by the hour. If you freeze in indecision or blink, your brand could be dead before you know it. Today the Coronavirus’s impact is still unknown, but brands must be on high-alert as customer’s consumption patterns and preferences shift. Be ready to respond and fight to survive. There are already too many dead brands.

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Suddenly Corona Beer is in Danger of Becoming a Victim of Coronavirus

We all know there is no link between Corona beer and the Coronavirus, but they have an unfortunate coincidence of sharing the same name. After 100 years of building a formidable beer brand, Corona is helplessly watching its brand name become a victim of a devastating global pandemic. Prior to Coronavirus, Corona Extra was the third-most popular beer in the United States. Coronavirus is becoming this century’s biggest catastrophic causing untold amounts of mental and physical mayhem on people, societies, businesses, and countries. Coronavirus destruction will live in the annals of history longer than any pale lager. Suddenly, Corona’s brand name is under attack with no clear direction of what they should do.

Fear Mongering

The first bad press Corona got in association with Coronavirus was from 5W Public Relations. They surveyed 737 U.S. beer drinkers and vigorously promoted their results: 38 percent of beer-drinking consumers would not buy Corona under any circumstances due to concerns about Coronavirus. They also claimed that 4 percent of people who previously drank Corona would stop drinking it — a rounding error.

PRWeek received the release but determined that “it was lacking in credibility…due to previous interactions with 5W and Torossian [CEO of 5W], who has courted controversy in the past and is not averse to a little self-promotion.” The 5W website shows no connection to beer consumers. But they got the results they were looking for. Mainstream media (like CBS News, CNN, Bloomberg, Fox, Vice and New York Post) jumped on the story, focusing on the 38 percent stats without any further investigation. Constellation Brands CEO and President Bill Newlands, owner of Corona, had to address the situation head on. He stated that “these claims simply do not reflect our business performance and consumer sentiment, which includes feedback from our distributor and retailer partners across the country.”

We all know that Corona beer does not causes Coronavirus, at least I hope we do. But people are scared and drinking a beer that shares its name with the virus can make some people uncomfortable. Is this the beginning of Corona beer’s demise or just bad research?

Negative Brand Names

The world is over saturated with brand names, making it almost impossible to break through the marketing noise. Wine brand names have tried to break this barrier with negatively charged brand names. With wine brands popping-up on shelves everywhere like Frog’s Piss, Earthquake, Killer, Fat Bastard, Prisoner, and BoomBoom. Negatively charged brand names are cutting edge. They are notorious and risqué like Fcuk fashions, Heart Attack Grill, Monster Energy drink, Skinny Bitch apparel, and Raging Bitch beer.

While negative words can generate negative feelings, they also create marketing opportunities because they are different and memorable. However, research has shown that extremely negative brand names can create consumer avoidance. But humour and attitude based negative brand names can create excitement, savviness, sensuousness, hipness and daringness that appeals to Millennials. Negative brand names challenge conventions and stand out from the crowd, but I don’t think this is where the Corona beer brand wants to go. It prefers golden sandy beaches, turquoise waters and clear blue skies.

Brand Name Casualty

Every brand works hard to build positive associations through product performance, employees, advertising, promotions, sponsorship, events, customer interactions, and social and community engagements. Once a negative association starts to take hold, its hard for people to separate the two.

A similar unfortunate situation developed for Ayds (pronounce as “aids”) candy. They were a popular appetite-suppressant candy in the 1970s and early 1980s until Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was discovered. The horrible disease also caused massive weight loss in patients. To try to save the brand name, they changed it to Diet Ayds. The negative connotation was still too great to overcome. The brand eventually went out of business.   

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina, the most devastating hurricane to hit southeast New Orleans killed 1,836 people and affected over 15 million residents. At the time, the name Katrina was ranked the 246th most popular female baby name according to nameberry.com. Seven years later, the name’s popularity has dropped 696 spots to 942. Once a negative connotation is placed on a name, it’s hard for people to move on. Once a brand name becomes negative, its almost impossible to turn the tide.

Drowning Sorrows

As the saying goes “when times are good, people drink — when times are bad, people drink.” Beer and other alcoholic beverages sales continue to rise as people self-isolate and worry about their future. No sports, no clubs, no concerts, no events of any kind, yet Nielsen data showed that beer sales rose 34 percent year-over-year for the week ending on March 21. Sales of Constellation Brand products, owner of Corona, are up higher at 39 percent, led by the Corona family, which is up 50 percent. Impressive until you compare it against toilet paper sales which are up 160 percent!

Corona Beer Virus

Since the end of January, the hashtag “corona beer virus”, “beer virus” and “beer coronavirus” have continued to trend upwards on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Some followers support of the brand, while others mock the virus and beer with creative memes. As the Coronavirus situation continues to intensify and people are in lockdown, connecting with friends and family through video conferencing online is the new normal. Corona beer has become an online celebrity for all the wrong reasons. Kellan Terry, senior manger of communications at Brandwatch, says that young people tend to laugh at what they consider to be dystopian events as a coping mechanism online. Having your brand associated with a deadly virus isn’t a healthy trend with or without the name.

Then, corona’s next problem appeared. Corona launched an online campaign for their new Corona Hard Seltzer with the slogan “coming ashore soon.” Twitter followers quickly attacked the campaign as “bad timing” and in “poor taste” amid the spread of Coronavirus. Corona promptly removed the slogan.

Beer Branding

Marketing alcohol is like marketing water; its not the taste that matters, its the brand image. In a classic blind taste study done in 1964, regular drinkers of certain brands failed to rate their brand as significantly better than the other samples. In fact, regular drinkers of two of the five types of beer scored other beers significantly higher than the brand that they stated was their favorite. There have been many other studies since with similar results. In 2018, the beer manufactures in the United States spend close to $1.5 billion on advertising. Constellation Brands ranked 2nd with a $368 million ad expenditure on Corona and Modelo. Beer brands live and die on their image. Corona brand marketing executives are likely increasing their own alcohol consumption in these unprecedented times.

Brand Reaction

Corona owner Constellation Brands has over 100 brands in beer, wine, spirits and, more recently, cannabis. Each brand gets its allotted marketing, brand support, and funding. So far, they have been lying low. If sales are good, why rock the boat? Reputation expert Andy Beal says, “The real threat would come if Corona were to dive in and capitalize on this by running some crass social media post.” In light of the seriousness of the situation, he cautions that “they should not make light of it.”

This isn’t about online social strategy (which Corona isn’t involved in). They do the bare minimum on social channels. Sitting on the sidelines and hoping this will eventually blow over isn’t a leader strategy either. The challenge is all alcohol brands make money on the image of people having fun. The Corona brand is all about sandy beaches, hot sun, and total escapism. John Alvarado, SVP of Brand Marketing for Corona Extra says Corona is “a carefree brand that encourages consumers to relax and enjoy life no matter the situation.” The Coronavirus is the antithesis to these positive vibes.

Brand Survival

Today, the Corona virus is attacking the United States with the fierceness never before seen in our lifetime. The Coronavirus crisis is affecting millions of people’s lives and livelihood. Consumers will judge brands on how they helped and stepped-up through these terrible times. Stress can cause people to make inappropriate jokes to lighten the mood; right now, Corona beer is one of those jokes. After all the turmoil, deaths, and dramatic life changes, can Corona bounce back as the king of carefree and sunny times? Will the emotional shock associated with one of the world’s darkest moments destroy the Corona name? Can a brand name live with so many negative connotations? In these catastrophic times more alcohol will be consumed than ever before. Hopefully after the hangover of isolation is over, Corona beer will still live on.

Stay safe and healthy.

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The World Needs More Canadian Brands, and We’re Not Sorry.

The world is getting smaller as global brands get bigger, thanks in part to the internet, globalization, and worldwide trends. Where do the humble Canadian brands fit? Surprisingly, a few recognizable Canadian brands have burst out from the Northern Frontier. Canadian brands have been strongly linked to our natural resources and long, cold winters—which makes sense given we’re the second largest nation, encompassing 9.9 million square kilometers that reach three coastlines. While our southern neighbour brands dominate the world, most Canadian brands are happy to stay above the 49th parallel, building iconic brands that only live within the Canadian psyche. But there have been some brands that have ventured beyond.

 

True North Strong Brands

In true Canadian modesty, there are several brands that have made it big outside of Canada. You may be amazed to find an eccentric range of global brands that call Canada home!

Remarkably, most international Canadian brands go unnoticed in Canada, when measured against the mega American global brands. In Leger’s 2018 annual ranking of Canada’s Top 20 Most Admired Companies, only five are Canadian brands (Shoppers Drug Mart, Canadian Tire, Dollarama, Canada Post and Sobeys) and only reside in Canada. Level 5 Strategy Group’s blog post How Canadian Brands can Compete on the Global Stage concludes that Canadian brands understand the importance of articulating the rational side of the brand experience, but falter on the emotional side of brand building. WestJet, however, is a great example of a brand that has built an emotional brand promise on “We Care”. Yet WestJet’s reach is still limited to its Canadian audience.

Rupert Duchesne, past Group Chief Executive of Aimia (parent company to Aeroplan Loyalty Company), doesn’t think Canadian brands have a strong desire for international trade. “You see a [Canadian] product and you think to yourself, if you put it in a certain country it’d be a winner,” he explains. “But we have a national view that international trade should be south of the border.”

 

O’ Canada Brands

Here is a list of brands that you might not have realized were Canadian. These brands have built their image on the Great White North, tapping into the clean air, fresh mountain water, vast wilderness, and pristine winter wonderland.

 

Canadian Spirit Brands

Great multicultural spirit is what Canada stands for. Core to the Canadian culture is the freedom to express ideas and live in peace. Canadian are perceived as friendly, tolerant, and clever. We also need a sense of humour to endure 6 to 8 months of winter! Outside of beer, poutine, beaver tails, maple syrup and ketchup chips, Canadians like to be active, enjoy life, and express themselves.

 

Canadian Hospitality Brands

Canada attracts tourists from around the world because of its many natural wonders like the Rockies, Niagara Falls, Coastal Islands, and much more. Canadians are also known as the nicest people in the world, with unfailing courtesy and politeness. In the book How To Be A Canadian, Ian and Will Ferguson theorize that there are 12 Canadian “sorries”: simple, essential, occupational, subservient, aristocratic, demonstrative, libidinous, ostentatious, mythical, unrepentant, sympathetic and authentic. They say once you master saying “I’m sorry,” you will be a true Canadian.

 

Canadian Trusted Brands

Canada is known for being a relatively safe and ethical country with an effective government system and a Prime Minister who knows how to say “sorry.” According to Reputation Institute’s 2017 Country RepTrak survey of 55 countries, Canada was the world’s most reputable county—an honour we’ve enjoyed four times over the last six years.

 

Canadian, Eh!?

There are always those outliers—brands that don’t fit the Canadian psyche but that have captured consumers around the world.

The World Needs More Canadian Brands

I am [not] sorry to say most Canadian brands are happy to focus on the 36 million Canadians that reside within our borders. Brands like Canada Post, Canadian Tire, Hudson’s Bay Company, Tim Hortons, and MEC have been content staying within Canada for the last few decades. But the ones that have endeavoured beyond the great north have built formidable brand empires with little fanfare.

There seems to be a common thread weaved through these brands. They don’t wear their emotions on their sleeve, they are more concerned about their customers than projecting their self-interests, and their CEO isn’t a name or face that you know. These are well-established brands that have grown over time, meeting and surpassing customers’ needs. These brands have adapted to changes and have been around for decades, with a clear focus on the customer.

Jeannette Hanna, a marketing expert and founder of Trajectory Brands, says successful international brands from Canada are chameleon-like, successfully adapting to many markets around the world. “They can fly under the radar in an interesting way so that they look international, and they look stylish, and can appeal to a broad base without having to scream that they’re Canadian.”

CEO Bruce Flatt of Brookfield Asset Management would agree. He believes “keeping a low profile is good for business. It’s best to be under the radar.” All the better to stalk our competition.

Quietly and politely, Canadian brands bring more Canada to the world. Buy Canadian, eh!

 

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The Best Way For A Brand To Taste Great Is Branding

Where does the taste of a brand fit? You guessed it, in the mouth. However, if your brand can’t fit into your customer’s mouth, this article may still provide you with wisdom about this unique portal to human consumption. That is to say, the taste of any brand is more about what you think a brand is than what you believe you experience.  Hold that thought as we explain the best way for a brand to taste great isn’t necessarily orally.

The Tongue

Let’s start with the tongue which does all the heavy lifting. If it’s not busy articulating a verb or noun, it’s busy moving food and liquid around in our mouth. The tongue has over 10,000 taste buds (the little bumps on your tongue). In essence, these bumps help distinguish between sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savoury (also known as umami). But on its own, it can only decipher essential elements of taste. But to realize its full potential, it requires other senses like smell, texture and temperature. Taste is the summation of the tongue and nose (if not influenced by our eyes). Our brain connects these sensations into a single emotional experience. This is the sweet spot where we know, in branding, is ripe for manipulation and trickery. Of course, all done in great taste.

 

Howard Moskowitz once said, “the mind knows not what the tongue wants.” And Moskowitz should know, as a well-known market researcher and psychophysicist. He was made famous by author Malcolm Gladwell in his New Yorker article titled “The Ketchup Conundrum” and his TedTalk called “Choice, happiness and spaghetti sauce.” A perfect video to watch on a Friday night with buttery popcorn. Gladwell recounts Moskowitz reinventing spaghetti sauce through his research, where he discovered there were three main sauces: plain, spicy and extra chunky. The market place only offered plain and spicy spaghetti sauce at the time. Moskowitz’s customer, Campbell Soup Kitchen, used this information and introduced Prego extra chunky spaghetti sauce that made over $600 million in the first ten years. Moskowitz certainly understood the secret to that sauce. It wasn’t the taste that made the difference it was the extra chunky texture.

Taste Test

The most memorable and successful taste test was the legendary Pepsi Challenge, which started in 1975. This simple demonstration put Pepsi on the map and kicked Coca Cola off their game with their introduction of the New Coke blunder. Years after, scientists continued to ponder what role does taste have in building a brand.

We believe the ultimate criteria for liking a drink or food is its taste. But we are positively influenced throughout the experience by extrinsic cues like packaging, labels, the brand story, the environmental situation, as well as the intrinsic product attributes, like texture, smell, appearance and perceived quality (price).

A 2013 blind taste test research study between Coke and Pepsi conducted by Dr. N. Ramanjaneyalu, C. Asangi and V. Kadabi at Karnatak University in India found that only 37% of respondents could successfully identify Coca Cola through taste or a lucky guess. They concluded that building the right brand image and positioning is just as important as the taste.

The Brain

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Blink, echoes a similar conclusion where he explains that people prefer a sweeter drink (characteristics of Pepsi) in a sip test but generally not necessary in glass size. He also goes on to talk about the importance of “sensation transference,” a phrase coined by scientific researcher Louis Cheskin, who said people’s perceptions and emotional attachments to the aesthetics of the product goes beyond just the taste of the product.

Neuroscientists Lauren Atlas and Tor Wager’s research on cognitive neuroscience concluded that expectations and beliefs play a pervasive role in the workings of the brain. What this means is expectations can influence those things we are knowingly aware of, like our loyalty and familiarity with a brand. Consciously and unconsciously, we are collecting information and analyzing our surroundings and assessing what we think we like and don’t like.

 

Tasteless

Gil Morrot, a wine researcher at the National Institute for Agronomic Research in Montpellier, found that the simple act of adding an odourless, red dye to a glass of white wine had a profound effect. By adding the red colour, the panel of tasters began to think the wine was real red wine. They starting tasting red wine characteristics like cherry, dark fruit and cedar.

It’s no surprise that the top five beer manufactures in the US spent approximately $1.6 billion in advertising in 2016, primarily if beer preference is not driven entirely by taste. Another excellent example is bottled water with the brand-first and tasteless-water second. (Check out my article The Power of a Brand).

In a study conducted at Stanford and Johns Hopkins, their researchers tested the effect of branding on taste preferences in young children. The 95 children aged 3-5 were given identical food, except one choice came in McDonald’s packaging, and the other was in plain-white packaging. All of the food came from McDonald’s, except for the carrots. Which one do you think the kids liked best? No brainer. Hands-down McDonald was selected, including the carrots that they don’t sell. The preferences for McDonald’s branded food increased with both the frequency of McDonald’s consumption and the number of TV sets in the home of each kid.

Taste Matters

I remember the day McDonald’s coffee tasted like merde! (pardon my French). In 2006, McDonald’s upgraded is coffee from a generic, non-descript coffee, to a darker-roast, Arabica, premium coffee. They called it the “Full Bean Coffee.” I recall seeing office colleagues with their extra-large McDonald’s to-go-cup and commenting the coffee tasted excellent, even better than Tim Hortons. Within a year, McDonald’s coffee sales climbed 20% in a market where coffee sales are over $30 billion. During that time, they gave away a lot of free coffee. Why? To demonstrate that their coffee did taste great because the taste does matter.

Taste is one of the most important factors influencing consumers’ preference for choosing one food and beverage brand over another. But we should not be so naïve to think that taste is the only discerning factor. Unless its Heinz’s ketchup—the perfectly balanced condiment with the right amount of tangy-sweet tomato and salty goodness, with pleasant sour notes and a buttery umami finish. Even with a 62% market share lead in the US (84% in Canada), this brand doesn’t rely only on taste. Heinz spent approximately $530 million on advertising in 2013, including securing an ad in the 2016 Super Bowl (which isn’t cheap). Most recently, Heinz‘s ketchup launched a brilliant advertising campaign inspired (actually a complete rip-off) from a Mad Men episode.

Final Tasting Notes

We understand the mouth’s role within our complex sensory system. It’s integral in how we interpret taste, and also how we define our likes and dislikes. We also know it has its limitations. In the end, its overruled by our brain’s desire to bring it all together.  So when positioning a brand that has a substantial oral opportunity, we can’t put all the pressure on the tongue to carry us through. By ensuring multiple sensory stimulations, only then will the tongue feel affirmation in what it’s experiencing. Now how you choose to influence this experience will leave your brand tasting bitter or sweet.