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September 8, 2008

Reputation Management: You’re Doing It Wrong

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The people behind high fructose corn syrup want you to know that despite what you’ve heard, they’re not really the devil, nor do they sacrifice babies. As long as you consume the stuff in moderation, you probably won’t die, become really fat or sprout an extra head. Or at least that’s what they say. I’m not totally convinced yet.

You may have noticed that there were some odd ads taking over your television this weekend. Ads featuring robot-like “people” eerily stating that high fructose corn syrup isn’t bad. It’s made from corn and okay in moderation. And it doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent just because you give your kid some random pink stuff. Suddenly it’s like the Cult of Fructose radiating out of your television set.

I’m serious. Watch one of their ads:

Kind of creepy, right? Totally. Watching that commercial gives me a skeevy feeling, like someone is about to call me into the shadows to offer me a bite of their strawberry ice pop. And it’ll only take that one bite and I’ll be hooked for life. Before you know it I’ll be stealing money from Bruce Clay, Inc. in order to support my high fructose corn syrup addiction. In six months I’ll be found living under a bridge with ice pops stuck to my face. [Would you like a frosting shot? –Susan]

Send help! Or at least better advertising.

We all know that high fructose corn syrup is in need of some reputation management. I don’t know what I’ve heard, just that I’m not supposed to eat anything that contains it. It’s being blamed for all that ails us. It’s clear that it needs a brand makeover; however, you can’t end a bad brand image without presenting a new one. You need to give us a new message to hold on to and these ads don’t do that, or at least they don’t give off a positive one. And yes, I’m saying that “it’s okay in moderation” is not an adequate brand message. They say the same thing about cigarettes. We’re not buying that those are healthy either.

The Corn Refiners Association (who even knew!) were smart to launch a campaign to defend their product. I don’t know anything about the CRA, but it’s probably pretty important to them that parents aren’t afraid to feed the product their kids. However, if they’re trying to make high fructose corn syrup less scary, they’re totally doing it wrong.

If you watch either of the two ads that are currently running, you’ll see that they don’t accomplish anything. I don’t even know if the CRA knows what it’s trying to accomplish. They don’t seem to have a brand image worked out. Are you trying to make your product appear more friendly and less dangerous? If so, you failed. Are you trying to get people excited about the benefits and yumminess of high fructose corn syrup? If so, again, you failed. The brand message of “okay in moderation” is no better than saying “it may not kill you this time”. That’s not what people want to hear. You need to associate something good and friendly and fun with your product.

Also, if you’re going to create ads to combat what “people have heard” about your product, you may want to mention what that is. It’s hard to fight something you’re too afraid to mention. You also can’t dispel our fears if we don’t know which fear you’re trying to overwrite.

Everything is marketable. You can market that high fructose corn syrup isn’t the leading cause of making you fat and unattractive, but you have to present a clear, more product-friendly brand message. These ads don’t do that. They simply make high fructose corn syrup connoisseurs look creepy and uptight, which is only half a notch up from thinking they’re all about to die. The ads aren’t engaging, they’re a total turn off.

*On a side note, casting someone who once played Buffy Summers’ demonic college roommate to say that your product isn’t, you know, evil may not have been wise. Just saying. [I feel like such a bad geek for not recognizing her. The shame, it burns. –Susan]

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9 responses to “Reputation Management: You’re Doing It Wrong”

  1. David Leonhardt writes:

    See why I don’t watch TV?

    But a more serious lesson, by a slim margin, is that one can never cast a positive image while on the defensive. One has to make positive assertions or easy to understand comparisons (like a two line graph comparing high-fructose corn sirup with something else parents might feed their kids). Given that you can prove anything with statistics, going on the defensive does seem like an amateur ploy to me.

  2. Kate Morris writes:

    Okay, I’m glad I’m not the only one that thinks that using Buffy’s demonic (in many ways) college roommate was a bad idea for getting your message of “we are not evil” across. Total fail there!

  3. Stephen Ward writes:

    This reminds me of how the big plastic companies are supposedly spreading their own version of the research surrounding Bisphenol A to keep the FDA from pulling it from baby bottles.

    I don’t think the objective is necessarily branding; after all, how many people are going to check the labels at the grocery stores for high fructose corn syrup? The real purpose of these commercials may only be to feed consumers selective information in order to avoid legislation that, say, requires foods to use a big, “Warning: Contains high fructose corn syrup,” label.

    Or do they do that already?

  4. Lee writes:

    While we are on the subject, what is with this current trend of negative unpleasant ads – of your OWN product! I’m in Vancouver and the local bank Vancity (yes, they deserve to be outed) feature the most unpleasant characters and settings. Here’s a sample: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uE4B5PoHd4Y How is this supposed to make me feel good about using their product or being associated in any way with such losers?

  5. Lisa writes:

    Lee: I don’t even have words for the stupidity of that ad. Thanks for sharing. :)

  6. mike writes:

    OK, I have no affiliation with this ad, but I will play devil’s advocate for a little bit.
    Did you miss the fact that after she couldn’t find anything negative to say about it, she took some of the “red death” and drank it?
    I agree that the ad is missing on a lot of levels and that it’s not going about the branding properly, but there is a subtle cue in there. Perhaps instead of saying “I love that top”, she could have said, “I’m having a great time at the party!” (even though it’s a kids party) and then taken a drink.
    What if that was a tacit way of saying, “You’re drinking/eating it all the time anyway, keep doing it, it won’t kill you!”?
    Being that we are in the field, we see plenty of flaws in ads. Who are we to say that this doesn’t resonate with the general public? Perhaps whomever came up with this ad tested it and it tested well with what they felt was a reasonable representation of the general public.

  7. Nick Stamoulis writes:

    This article is equally on point as it is hilarious. The whole Buffy’s roommate thing is even funnier… what a great way to cast!

  8. Bob Weber writes:

    I agree with you in theory, but we are talking about High Fructose Corn Syrup here, not Nikes. Changing a brand image on a food product is tough. Personally, I’ve never really fallen for some of the gimmicky branding by the ag community. Pork, the other white meat? Prunes are now “Dried Plums”? Seriously, where do you go with HFCS? Next thing you know the MSG manufacturers will have commercials about how that’s not going to kill you too.

    As for that Vancity commercial. I LOVE it. It’s quirky, funny and memorable. All very good things.

  9. Marios Alexandrou writes:

    The only folks that have it harder than the Corn Refiners Association are the people that have to come up with the toilet paper ads. Dancing cartoon bears and women primping themselves just prior to exiting the bathroom. Does these commercials actually work for anyone?



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