Metaphors mean business – or – If “G” is for Gatorade, then is “F” for financials?


The rebrand of Gatorade was launched at the beginning of this year and now the results are in.  Verdict?  Not good.  In Thursday’s WSJ it was reported that a large drop in sales of Gatorade is behind Pepsico’s 6% drop in volume during the second quarter.  

This is the 3rd time that an Arnell Group’s redesign has proven very costly to Pepsico.  It’s a classic case of branding getting in the way of business.  In fairness the first case, the redesign of the Pepsi logo, it was more of a public relations issue than a design question.  People said that it was too similar to the Obama campaign logo and the justifications provided by Arnell did not successfully address the underlying issue.  The cost was to the brand’s reputation. Over time the Obama similarity questions will fade away (at least outside of the branding community) and I believe that the Pepsi Smile will ultimately become a successful identity.  That is because a strong new metaphor — the smile — has been woven into the Pepsi narrative.  Drink a Pepsi and smile!

The second was the redesign of the Tropicana brand.  In that case a strong metaphor, the straw in the orange, was replaced by a beautifully shot glass of orange juice.  It was beautiful and well executed but lacking in meaning.  It was an error that should have been picked up in well-designed market research that probes into metaphors.  A typical focus group could easily miss the deeper issue.  In this case the cost was both to the brand’s reputation and an actual monetary loss for returning to the old, stronger, metaphors on packaging.  All of the new work was a needless expense.

What is interesting about the third case?  It is the one most clearly identified as a substantial financial cost to the brand and company.  That was the underlying story in the recent earnings report. 

So what went wrong?

The answer is simple.  The redesign of Gatorade replaced a strong metaphor for a weak metaphor.  

Here is the previous Gatorade design.  The central metaphor is the lightening bolt.  Heavy handed?  Yes but you cannot miss it.   It is Zeus’s lightening bolt, the symbol of the powerful gods. Rich stuff for co-creating meaning.  The old campaigns showed the old metaphors clearly — the victorious warriors, the gods of sport, celebrating with Gatorate.  

If you believe that ancient mythology is long forgotten and therefore that bolt is unknown, consider that Disney’s movie Hercules was released in 1997 and retold that story again for a new generation.  And the popular Percy Jackson series started with The Lightening Thief — which is about to be released as a major motion picture.


And here is the redesign.  The dominant metaphor here is “G”.  The name has been de-emphasize to the point of being nearly invisible.  And the lightening bolt has been demoted to a secondary graphic element.  

Gatorade redesign on packaging

What does “G” mean?  That was the question raised by the new advertising.  Gifted, glorious, golden and the emblem of a warrior are some of the answers provided in the advertising campaign.  Here’s John Swansburg’s take on the campaign in Slate.    In sum, the metaphor of quenching the thirst of warriors has been replaced by people in street clothes talking about “G” as the symbol of the warrior and not the lightening bolt.  

For the average person “G” has little meaning.  What do you co-create with G? Certainly it is not associated with winning teams and sweating athletes.  What might seem a subtle shift in emphasis to update the brand was really a major shift in the metaphor.  And that has proven costly.

In sum, the redesign of Pepsi, adding the smile metaphor, will probably be successful over time.  It was a pr fumble, nothing more.  The redesign of Tropicana and Gatorade show what happens with the opposite situation, the replacement of a strong metaphor with a much weaker one.  The cost has been real, not just in image.  Every business person and every creative person should memorize this line from the poet Robert Frost

Unless you are educated in metaphor, you are not safe to be let loose in the world.

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