Years ago, as an eager student of all things advertising and marketing, I was deeply impressed by the story of one of the most monumental marketing blunders of all time.
In 1985, in response to declining sales, the marketing team at the 99-year-old Coca-Cola Company undertook some market research. They’d formed the view that consumer tastes were changing, and that people were starting to prefer the sweeter taste of Pepsi. So they conducted blind taste tests which confirmed that theory.
On April 23 of that year, the company announced (with great fanfare) the good news that it was scrapping its original formulation for a newer, sweeter version – which became known unofficially as ‘new Coke’.
The negative reaction was immediate. After being flooded with phone calls, 40,000 letters and reams of bad press, the company backtracked three months later, announcing the return of Coca-Cola ‘classic’. So significant was the announcement, that TV anchor Peter Jennings interrupted General Hospital to bring the good news to the nation.
Where did Coca-Cola go wrong? They severely underestimated the nation’s sentimental attachment to the iconic American brand. And even those that took part in the blind taste tests went on to say, “you never told me you’d stop making the original formula”.
Marketing lesson 101 – consider the emotional attachment that consumers always have to iconic brands, even if the market research suggests otherwise. Mess with sacred cows with extreme caution.
So I was incredulous to see Arnott’s fall into the very same trap when the biscuit giant announced it was changing Shapes to a ‘new and improved’ recipe.
Here’s the official announcement as it originally appeared on Shapes’ website:
“Fans this one is for you! Tame your hunger with new and improved Shapes, now with more flavour. Made on a crispy, crunchy oven-baked-not-fried biscuit base they’ll smash your cravings…you asked for more flavour Shapes lovers, so get a big flavour hit from the new and improved Shapes available in the biscuit aisle now.”
Hang on, for 40 years the original Shapes has been a lunchbox staple for Aussie kids – I reckon there just might be some emotional attachment to the brand – no matter what the market research might say.
And of course the negative backlash was immediate. The wave of hatred, anger and disgust about the new recipe has made Shapes a trending topic on social media for weeks now.
There is even a petition on change.org to return Shapes back to its original flavour. You really can’t mess with Australia’s childhood snacks!
Arnott’s has now been forced to reassure angry customers it will keep the original recipe for two of its Shapes varieties, but outraged consumers are still demanding the biscuit brand axe the ‘new and improved’ versions and simply restore the original Shapes range.
For now Arnott’s is standing firm on its decision to change the recipe of Shapes.
Back in 1985 it took Coca-Cola three months to realise its mistake. Today social media quickly fuels the flames of consumer dissatisfaction with brands. It will be interesting to observe what happens next!
Jo Stone is Head of Strategy at BCM