THE words ‘epic fail’ have been floating around in my mind for the last couple of weeks.
On June 9, Britain’s Daily Mail published a story which began with the words: “Flora margarine has made an embarrassing U-turn after a consumer backlash by shoppers who launched campaigns protesting at a change in the taste of their favourite spread.
"Brand owner Unilever is bringing back the old flavour 17 months after spending £29m on a reformulation aimed at making the product healthier and tastier.” The product is Flora White, not a product that we use in South Africa, as far as I know.
Well, I thought, this sounds rather familiar. A bit like New Coke, innit?
Remember how Coca-Cola, after extensive market research, introduced a new formula Coca-Cola which bombed rather spectacularly. “Over 400 000 calls and letters were received by the company, including one letter, delivered to Goizueta, that was addressed to ‘Chief Dodo, The Coca-Cola Company’.
"Another letter asked for his autograph, as the signature of ‘one of the dumbest executives in American business history’ would likely become valuable in the future.”
Similarly intent on disproving the old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, Guinness launched a low-calorie product in 1979 called Guinness Light.
“People here still talk about the advertising campaign, which used the tagline ‘they said it couldn't be done’. Apparently it couldn't. Guinness Light flopped so sensationally it earned the title ‘The HMS Titanic of stout products’ from The Irish Times.”
Still, it took Coca-Cola only three months to recognise that they were on a hiding to nothing. It took Unilever a little longer to respond to cries from the heart like this: “Flora is the vital ingredient for homemade pastry.
"With the huge interest in baking and cooking I can't believe Flora has discontinued this product. Have tried the alternatives and nothing works quite the way Flora White did for pastry and other recipes - PLEASE BRING IT BACK !!” (Petition on change.org)
Unilever ultimately did a survey of nearly 2 000 consumers, and found - surprise! - that the results reflected all those angry posts on website forums (and the 12.4% decline in sales). So they’re rolling out the original formula under the slogan ‘Back To The Taste You Love’.
Now I find myself wondering if a similar outcry could change the mind of a Fortune 500 corporation Mattel, which owns the rights to Scrabble (except in the USA and Canada).
As I explained in a previous column, for years one has been able to play Scrabble through an app on Facebook.
At the end of May, FB Scrabble players woke up to find their game had been ‘upgraded’ and in consequence, they’d lost several valuable functionalities, including the option of choosing your own opponent instead of being randomly matched with someone.
And into the bargain, they’d lost contact with all the players they were engaged in playing – in some cases, people they’d been playing for years. As one man explained, you’d seen your opponents through the birth of children and grandchildren, divorces, deaths, losses and triumphs in life as well as on the board.
The outcry has been quite extraordinary. A change.org petition is circulating, and has reached almost 5 000 signatories; several FB pages have been created for people to voice their discontent; and if you go onto the FB pages for Scrabble and Mattel, you’ll see almost every comment is anti the ‘new’ Scrabble.
For example, a day or so ago, Mattel posted some inspirational words: “Every small change to protect our environment can lead to something BIG. ‘Like’ if you agree!” Swiftly came the reply: “Every small change to Scrabble ruins your future.”
And these angry people mean it, too. I’ve seen grannies vow that not a single Mattel toy will be purchased for any child in their family until the old Scrabble is restored.
One man in Australia created a series of posters in which the doll, Barbie, suffered awful fates – she was chewed by a dog, dressed in prison stripes and threatened with electrocution unless she gave back ‘our’ game, skewered and held over a braai (that one was titled ‘Barbie Cue’). (Barbie is, of course, owned by Mattel.)
The impact on Mattel is not likely to be as obvious as the impact of consumer resistance to Flora White, though. I imagine the revenue generated by a free app on FB comes from the ads – and the new Scrabble offers some extra things that you can pay for.
But so far, the response from Mattel and the game developers, EA, has been underwhelming. A few PR blurbs about how “we’re listening and appreciate your feedback” don’t do diddly-squat to assuage the rage of thwarted players.
How on earth do such big corporations go so far off-track? Surely a few focus groups would tell them what their consumers like about the status quo, and what is non-negotiable? (In fact, focus groups did give Coca-Cola some early warnings, so I’ve read.)
Why is it so hard to admit to getting it wrong?
And finally, why is wholesale change, change that alters the essence of any product, necessary in the first place? If it ain’t broke, for heaven’s sake, why on earth fix it?
*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor.
Views expressed are her own.
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