The Gap introduces a new logo. A firestorm of criticism breaks out. They kill it and go back to the old one. Tropicana institutes a major packaging redesign. The reviews are terrible. Six months later the old packaging is back on the shelves. For about a thousand years, Chevrolet has had a nickname – Chevy. A new management team recently arrived at the company to shake things up. One of their first decisions was to ban the name, Chevy, and use only “Chevrolet.” The outcry was instanteous. Chevy stayed. The brand’s new advertising tagline? Chevy Runs Deep.
We live in a world of instant communication, with a myriad of platforms in which to voice our opinions. And those opinions are shaping the decisions companies make at a rate and a speed never before seen. And this is good, right? Companies should be responsive to the likes and dislikes of the public, shouldn’t they?
For decades, marketers have used testing techniques, like focus groups, to gage consumer reaction to new ads, new products, new flavors, new scents, new you name it. Movie studios routinely pre-screen films with alternate scenes to see which one audiences like most. This kind of consumer feedback often makes a product better. Or helps avoid a serious mistake that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. But what gets lost in the process? What about the brilliant, quirky idea that dies before it has a chance to succeed? It’s been my experience that consumers as a group aren’t an adventurous lot. They tend to gravitate to the tried and true. Familiar feels good. New and different is scary. It makes people uncomfortable. That’s when the knives come out.
Several years ago, while working on the Mercedes Benz account, I went to Germany with my team to be briefed on a new car Mercedes was building – the S Class. The first time we laid eyes on the car, we were all a bit shocked. It was big and clunky – with all sorts of sharp angles. Nothing like the elegantly rounded Mercedes cars we were used to seeing on the road.
Later, we took the S for a spin on the test track. It was incredible. For all of its heft, it handled beautifully. That night the chief designer of the car joined us for dinner. He wanted to know what we thought of his new baby. We gave glowing reviews to its power, technology and advanced safety features. Then he asked us how we liked its looks. Before we could answer, he said, “You think it’s ugly, right? Everyone does.”
We were dumbfounded. He laughed. Then he told us that all of the research they had done had come back with the same response. People really didn’t like the car’s design. It didn’t “look” like a Mercedes. This didn’t concern him in the least. In fact, he was pleased. He believed that if people immediately fell in love with a design, they would get bored with it quickly. Since the S was to be in production for the next 7 or 8 years, the car’s eccentricity would keep it fresh and eventually people would come to love it.
Of course, the car was a big success. Mercedes sold thousands of them over the years and many of them are still out there tooling around. What if that car was being introduced today? Would the research have caused Mercedes to re-think the car’s design? Or scrap it entirely and start over? Would the blogosphere have ripped it to shreds before the public had an opportunity to decide whether they liked it or not?
Some ideas deserve to die – quickly. Personally, I hated the redesigned Tropicana packaging. It was bland and generic looking. To even consider dropping the Chevy name was incredibly dumb. What could they have been thinking? I’m not so sure about the Gap logo. Like the S Class, we might have gotten to like it the more time we spent with it. We’ll never know. And that’s the danger inherent in our light speed world. John Lennon said “Give Peace A Chance.” Maybe it’s time to say, “Give ideas a chance.”