On a quest to impress his biologist in-laws, a marketing exec spots striking similarities between the struggles for both profit and survival
By Amit Sutha | May 18, 2007
Ever heard of Batchelors SuperNoodles? If you are from the UK and interested in noodles, you probably have. In the late nineties, the long-popular item faced some competition from additional low-priced instant noodles, and the brand began to "bleed," in marketing-speak -- meaning, it was losing its competitive edge.
To save itself, SuperNoodles changed its marketing message from being strictly a nutritional after-school meal for kids to a late-night snack for 20-somethings. A radical move, but it paid off -- the brand experienced an astounding 72 percent improvement in weekly UK sales.
Sound familiar? Essentially, this is the story of evolution -- not of life, but of our so-called "brand landscape." Species are constantly getting tweaked in the fight to stay alive, and brands do the same thing.
As a corporate advisor, I help companies facing financial crises get back on track, yet what I do for a living often fails to impress two of the most important people in my life: My in-laws, both biologists. On one of my visits to their home, on a desperate search of ways to impress them, I picked up a book about evolution, one of my first formal readings in the subject. That's when I noticed the similarities between branding and surviving in the wild.
Our existence on this planet is the product of an intricate and unpredictable interplay between creative processes of evolution and the sometimes capricious hand of extinction. I argue that the same thing could be said about most brands. A particular product survives on the market thanks to a combination of creative maneuvering of advertising messages (repositioning as we call it), and keeping up with competition.
Consider the similarities between evolution and the history of a lemon-based soft drink, Coca-Cola's Mello Yello. In 1998, Mello Yello faced an existential crisis. The brand was competing with PepsiCo's Mountain Dew, and losing. Both products were yellow, lemony, carbonated, and associated with high-energy "extreme" imagery, such as commercials featuring martial arts (Mountain Dew). But Pepsi was spending five times more on advertising, and way outselling Coke's Mello Yello.
While developing its marketing strategy, Coke identified a seemingly innocuous yet valuable product insight. Though Mello Yello resembled Mountain Dew, consumers agreed that Mello Yello was sweeter and less carbonated -- "easier going down". So the brand shaped its message accordingly, and changed its slogan to "Mello Yello. It's Smooth." The word "smooth" referred to both taste and a way of life, associated with coolness and calmness. The brand carved out a niche for itself, and the move worked -- daily consumption went up by 200 percent in the US.
Survival of the fittest is the name of the game, in both business and biology. Another key element of success in both the wild and the marketplace: Building on natural strengths.
Listerine has always been at the top of the mouthwash food chain. But recently other products that act as quick-fix breath fresheners, such as gums and mints, started threatening Listerine's supremacy. To stay on top, Listerine changed its message from a quick-fix for fresh breath to an essential part of a good oral hygiene platform. This change also forced consumers to consider using the product every day, instead of only when they had bad breath. Listerine's UK sales shot up 40 percent.
Some evolutionary biologists say that the best way to decipher the history of the world is to look at species when they face an overriding crisis. The threat of extinction invariably leads to the evolutionary processes that often enable species to thrive in a new landscape. After working with many cases of brands that evolved, survived, and proliferated in the face of a powerful crisis, I see exactly the same pattern in the products that survive on our supermarket shelves.
Amit Sutha is a Strategic Planning Director based in Mumbai, India, at the advertising company, JWT. The company has worked with Listerine, but Sutha was not involved in the project.
Links within this article:
L. Buchholz, "Prehistoric puzzles," The Scientist, September 15, 2007.
Mountain Dew ad, YouTube
A Harding, "Choosing a company logo," The Scientist, December 6, 2004
C. Shekhar, "Classified ad confidential," The Scientist, November 2006.