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Twitter could leave bitter taste in Pepsi’s mouth

By Mike Stones , 02-Mar-2009

The new cartons stink.” Customer responses to new product developments seldom come clearer or more direct than that.

 

The comment, delivered not through a traditional market research forum but by email, sparked swift and decisive action by the company concerned. And, it is yet more evidence of the opportunities and threats posed by rapid, unlimited electronic communication.

The irate email, and apparently many like it, followed the launch of new packaging for Tropicana Pure Premium Orange juice in January. Its manufacturers, the PepsiCo Americas Beverages division of PepsiCo, replaced the trademark image of a straw protruding from an orange with a glass of orange juice on its new cartons.

Consumer pressure

Customers were less than impressed. Although the contents of the cartons remain unchanged, the new-look packaging drew vitriolic responses. Within just eight weeks, a remarkably short lifespan given the investment in the product’s redesign, the company dropped the new packaging and reverted to the old cartons.

The reason was not the scale of the protest but its source and depth, according to a company executive quoted in the New York Times. The opposition came from only “a fraction of a percent of people who buy the product,” but, “…they were our most loyal customers,” said the spokesman.

Communication potential

Now, here’s the opportunity. High speed, mass electronic communication provides undreamed of benefits for food and drink companies. Forget laborious market research groups. Forget the weeks, sometimes months, needed to painstakingly canvas consumers’ opinions before action can be taken.

In the early 21st century, interactive technologies such as email and social networking systems allow consumers to tell manufacturers and marketers exactly what they think of new products or new developments of existing products almost instantly. As the Tropicana furore showed, consumers are not slow to share their views and companies are proving increasingly quick to act on them.

Power of internet

As far back as August 2007, our sister title ConfectioneryNews.com reported Cadbury’s decision to relaunch its Wispa chocolate bar in the UK following pressure from social networking sites. The Wispa bars were revived after supporters clamoured for the return of their favourite chocolate snack on Facebook and Myspace.

This is the first time the power of the internet played such an intrinsic role in the return of a Cadbury brand,” a spokesman told ConfectioneryNews.com.

Since then, other social media tools have opened up new communication channels between consumers and marketers. One of the most powerful promises to be Twitter – the social networking and micro-blogging service that allows users to send and receive text-based posts of up to 140 characters in length.

Twitter is already far more than a vehicle for social chit-chat. Marketers and advertisers are already experimenting with its potential to shape and record consumer opinion. Nearly 60 per cent of users report using it for business purposes, social media specialist Rodney Rumford told MediaPostNews. Global brands such Starbucks, with its six million customers, are now showing interest in Twitter.

Disproportional voting?

In a key comment, Rumford succinctly captures the inherent business value of Twitter: “It’s not a campaign, it’s a conversation.”

But with the vast potential of social media tools also comes a threat. It is this: A disproportionately small number of consumers can now have a disproportionally large impact on a food or beverage product’s profile and its commercial success.

For every consumer who hated the new Tropicana carton, there may have been thousands who liked it or had no view on the matter. So why incur the massive expense of a packaging U-turn on such flimsy evidence?

Unhappy consumers are, by nature, more vocal than happy ones. Just because a vociferous minority assert something to be true does not mean that it is true.

It may be fashionable to respond swiftly and decisively to consumers’ views as expressed on social networking sites, but that does not make it right, desirable or commercially wise to do so.

As social networking sites become ever more influential, it will become even more important for companies to act on representative evidence rather than the whim of a vocal minority located somewhere in cyber space.

Mike Stones has written on food and farming topics for 20 years. He lives in Southern France and co-owns a small family arable farm in northern England. If you would like to comment on this article please email michael.stones ‘at’ decisionnews.com.

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