“Skinny Oreos,” Broken Brand

Brand Essence: Noun. A feeling. The instinctive, unconscious emotional reaction people have whenever they encounter you.

Today I learned that Oreos are going on a diet.

Despite the fact that 50% of Oreo consumers split the cookie apart before eating it, the Associated Press reports, there will soon be a new version called “Oreo Thins” (on the radio they’re calling it “Skinny Oreos”) that – due to its slimmer cookie profile – make such activity impossible.

“And since they’re for adults, Oreo says they weren’t designed to be twisted open or dunked. That’s even though about half of customers pull apart regular Oreos before eating them, according to the company.”

It didn’t take me long to figure out that the decision must be about expanding market share. Of course.

But in my view, trying to build financial equity by destroying basic brand equity is misguided. For the essence of the Oreo brand is really “simple childlike American indulgence” – a luster that can be applied to myriad products (look at M&Ms!).

By offering “sophisticated adult not-particularly-American semi-indulgence” the company which owns the brand is guaranteed to lose a lot more money in the long term.

Brand Cannibalism: Noun. The practice of chewing off your arm when you are hungry, rather than choosing a nutritious food source external to your body.

If you’ve made a financial decision to make a destructive brand move, at least have enough respect for your customer to honor them with an explanation that takes the brand essence into account. For example:

“We know that Oreos represent childlike indulgence to many Americans. But we wanted to make another version available to those who might want to try a different version of the cookie, perhaps as an ingredient in a sophisticated dessert.”

That would have been fine! But instead, here is what we actually heard about the loss of dunking:

“If people want to do that, it’s clearly up to them.”

Up to them! Up to them! WHAATTT????

The fact that I never eat Oreo cookies, but this response provokes such a visceral antagonistic emotion in me, tells you how attached I am to this brand. As “Don Draper” (“Mad Men”) might put it, “Oreos are part of our collective memory bank.”

You don’t torch my baby pictures lightly. You don’t tell me we have to leave that album and run, unless there is a very good reason to do it.

In a way, this situation brings to mind a child confronted with parents who announce they are getting a divorce. One of the parents says they are getting remarried.

“No, this can’t be true,” the child thinks. “I want Mommy and Daddy to stay together. I don’t want you to go with (her or him).”

The emotional health of this child depends very much on how the parents handle it. I can only imagine the trauma this conversation would inflict:

Child (tearfully): “But what about bedtime? You guys used to always tuck me in together! And sing me a song!”

Parent: “If families want to do that, it’s clearly up to them.”

Perhaps I am being too emotional about this. Perhaps I am misguided. After all, look at Coca-Cola, and its spinoff, Diet Coke. The “lite” product was released more than thirty years ago, and they’re doing just fine, right?

I would tell you, I would tell the head of Coca-Cola, that no matter how much money it makes, “Diet Coke” poses a similar brand challenge to the corporate brand. That no matter how much money it’s made for the company, THERE IS NOTHING LIKE A CLASSIC CAN OF SUGARY SODA MADE WITH THE SECRET FORMULA.

This is the same thing I would tell Howard Schultz, if I were ever to run into him at Starbucks, regarding the decision to offer instant “Via.” And I have said this in a blog post, awhile ago. THE BRAND WAS BUILT ON A PERFECT CUP OF HAND-BREWED COFFEE, AND YOU ARE DESTROYING IT BY OFFERING A PROCESSED INSTANT VERSION.

Every time you cannibalize your brand for the sake of market share, you are cutting off your hand to spite your face. It is only a matter of time before your brand dies fully, chokes to death, in a matter seemingly sudden and unprompted.

A worse kind of brand cannibalism than this occurs even before the brand gets off the ground. And that is, the company decides to be all things to all people. So that there is no ability to build a brand essence in the first place.

This, too, is a wrongheaded move built on a kind of greed, and I’ve seen it in action. One day you’re all about A, then next day it’s B and then C and then D, and by the end of the year you’re like someone who’s hooked up with the entire senior class.

You have to know what your brand is. You have to choose a personality and stick with it. And this personality will be completely intangible – visible only in its symbols, its sounds, its colors and its effects – impossible to measure, standardize and automate.

Do you know how I choose a song to preview, if I choose to preview a song? I look at what the band is about, what the lead singer does, and if I like that singer’s brand I will break out of my habit of listening to the same preferred tunes over and over again and give it a chance. Maroon 5 is one. Billy Joel is another. James Taylor is a third. Lately, Taylor Swift. Lady Gaga.

By the way, would you rather hear a news report or a song? Of course, you want the song. Because you don’t want to think every minute. It’s a huge cognitive load. The music gets you to a good place, quickly. And that’s exactly the same function provided by a brand.

If it’s hard for a starting-out brand or an established one to focus, that’s understandable since there’s a lot to lose. But you’ve got to think of risk in the bigger picture. If you’re a good brand you’re going to piss somebody off. You’re definitely going to lose market share. But the more you stay very close to the ground, the more you plant your feet firmly in your little patch of soil, the more profitable your brand will be.

You want to know who I think does this kind of branding well? Hollywood comes to mind, because L.A. is so good at packaging people and serving them back to us in very specific categories that fill very specific entertainment needs. Not everyone would want to watch the Roast of James Franco on Comedy Central, but a certain audience absolutely will, and they will like it so very much they’ll likely watch it again and again. Melissa McCarthy is so funny. Simon Cowell is so acerbic: As soon as he left American Idol the show was dead.

The Four Seasons also comes to mind. I think I’ve stayed there once in my entire life. But the white-glove service they provided, the way every single representative of the hotel literally stopped to pick up my tissue when I sneezed, has never been duplicated anywhere. (They could save money with “Five Seasons Cheap” but you can imagine my reaction.)

Bounty Paper Towels cannibalized their product with a cheaper version of the brand called “Basic.” Do you know what? Basic sucks! It doesn’t work as well! And do you know why? BECAUSE IT ISN’T “BOUNTY!”

If you’re an ordinary person and not involved in making decisions about the brand, terms like “brand essence” and “brand cannibalism” are very easy concepts to understand. But if it’s your head on the stake and you’re scared to make a misstep, this can lead you to be confused, to cogitate, endlessly and over again. And perhaps even to screw things up a bit.

Believe me when I tell you I’m not standing on a brand soapbox. I live in the world, not an ivory tower. And these decisions are extraordinarily hard, both in bringing people together theoretically and in the practice of actually doing the work.

I know that great brands are normally polarizing. It was only yesterday that somebody said to me, “Google! Don’t get me started about them!”

Facebook can provoke a similar reaction.

But building a brand is not an exercise for the faint-hearted.

You’ve got to plant that seed in the ground.

And then defend it against all thieves, murderers and plundering invaders.


All opinions are my own and do not represent those of my agency or the federal government as a whole. Photo credit: Caden Crawford via Flickr Creative Commons.

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