What Should Four Loko Do Next? 5 Tips for an Embattled Brand

Last Updated Dec 20, 2010 10:01 AM EST

Over the past few weeks, I've attempted several times to contact the founders of Phusion Products, the makers of Four Loko, for an interview. But I had no luck getting anyone from the company to talk to me. For me, the most interesting question isn't whether or not Four Loko should be banned (and for the record, my strong opinion is absolutely not), but how a young company moves forward after such a setback. For expert council on that, I turned to Carreen Winters, EVP Corporate Reputation, at MWW Group, an East Rutherford, NJ public relations firm that has been named Strategic Public Relations Company of the year by The Holmes Report. Here are Carreen's analysis and recommendations:
Not too long ago Four Loko, made by Phusion Products, seemed like the next big thing. Popular among rappers, young work-a-holics, and college students who like to mix business with pleasure when pulling all nighters, Four Loko's concoction of caffeine and alcohol seemed like Monster Beverages or Red Bull, but better. Smart marketing reinforced the position, and tactics like the "Four Loko Anthem" rap video drew 1.5M hits on YouTube.

What a difference a few months can make. It wasn't until last month when a string of hospitalizations on college campuses, one fatal car accident in Maryland, and one death in Florida were attributed to Four Loko, that the brand rose to national prominence. And due to that prominence, regulators have all but formally banned Four Loko products in the United States.

Debate over whether the FDA should be banning this product is a subject for another blog on another day. Being banned has long been a path to popularity, with prohibition and gambling coming to mind, not to mention the 80's blockbuster film Footloose, which chronicled a town that banned dancing. In fact, over the years, I've had clients make TV commercials they knew would be banned, simply for the publicity - a model perfected by Calvin Klein at the height of his "heroin chic" marketing phase.

So how can Four Loko keep its cache once they lose their "banned in Boston" status?

  • First, they should keep in mind that people - and particularly those in their target demographic - don't necessarily pay attention to detail. The banned "halo" may stick with them for a while, which gives Four Loko a solid window of opportunity to entrench themselves as a favorite rather than a fad. Think UGGs or Pashmina's - now wardrobe staples - rather than bell bottoms - a fad that hits it big once every 30 years or so.
  • Four Loko should also remember what got them here in the first place. The rise of the brand wasn't about being banned, it was driven by rap music and pop culture influence. In a sense, their path to success was one-upping the game created by Red Bull and Monster. If they return to market - presumably as an alcohol-only brand with no caffeine - they need to stay the course, increasing product placement, celebrity endorsements, and enthusiasm among the rap community. Perhaps commissioning a new song or anthem - like Ushers Confessions Part I and II - about the new formula might be a place to start.
  • From there, they should socialize the brand, and then socialize it some more. Whether you are pro-Four Loko or against, it's key to remember this is a movement. The company should keep its customers and fans engaged via an active program to continually socialize the brand and individual products as they evolve. Participate in the conversation, but don't try to control it. And listen carefully. Your best ideas for remaining relevant will come via listening.
  • The company should also continue to educate influencers. Retailers need to understand that they can stock the new product on their shelves, even if they are down the block from Ramapo College, the first university to ban the drink. Bartenders and mixologists need to know how to use it to create drinks that ring the register. Consumers need to know where to find it, and understand that great flavors and enjoyment are still theirs for the tasting...safely. And if they choose to add a shot of espresso on their own, so be it.
  • Finally, they should look to create some "controversy," or at least "drama" on their own. Provocative can be positive. Masters of this game include Lady Gaga, and before her Madonna. It is important for Four Loko to preserve some of its "bad boy" appeal, or it risks going the way of New Coke - interesting for a while, and then just gone.
Do you agree with Carreen's recommendations? How do you think Four Loko should move forward?