Tropicana's Trouble: Why Loyal Customers Hate Change

Last Updated Apr 3, 2009 10:18 AM EDT

The kerfuffle over Tropicana's recently yanked new design for its orange juice carton is just another reason why marketers have a love-hate relationship with the Internet and social media.

For years, Tropicana's products have pictured a beautiful orange punctured by a straw. What could be fresher? Still, it was rather long-in-the-tooth, so Trop's parent, PepsiCo, decided to modernize the marketing message and update th design to feature a glass of chilled OJ and some modern typography.

Well, the oranges hit the fan. Customers this week finally pressured the company into going back to the old design.

Writing on Harvard Business Publishing, marketing expert Peter Merholz says the new design maybe wasn''t really all that bad--but Pepsi's user testing surely went off the tracks. "Tropicana no longer stands out. You now have to stop and think about which juice you want to buy, and given all these options, you enter "Paradox of Choice" territory, where you end up frustrated trying to decide between so many options."

And I'm sure that's part of it. But here is why I think marketers are of two minds about social technologies. It was a very small number of Tropicana users who bombarded the company with criticism, a number characterized as a "fraction of a percent of the people who buy the product." But these were the most loyal customers, those who cared enough to email, blog and otherwise communicate their distaste for the change.

The Loyal Customer Paradox

Well, in almost any product group, your most loyal users are also the ones who like things just the way they are. They like the current design of New Yorker magazine, and will kick and scream when you change a font size. They really don't want Apple "improving" the Mac interface with an application dock. And don't get them started about New Coke.

But here's the thing. Yes, the new Tropicana design would have alienated older customers, but what if it attracted a whole new generation of customers to carry the product forward?

So to my marketer friends in the audience, give Tropicana and the rest of some advice on how to create innovative changes that will win the hearts of loyalists rather than send them rushing to the keyboard? What's the messaging? What's the testing look like? Alternatively, when do we toss loyalty to the wind and start with a clean slate?

(Tropicana image by Justinlai, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.