Classic Mistakes, But O, What a Chance To Learn

There’s an enormous amount that can be learned from a mistake.

That came to mind when the folks at the Coca-Cola Co. finally dropped “Classic” from the label of their top brand. It had been there for 24 years, a sort of covenant between the company and its consumers that followed New Coke, one of the biggest corporate whoppers this side of the Babe Ruth sale.

No one needs to hear me repeat the story of New Coke, but the big lesson bears repeating: products can mean things to people, and if you mess with that product, you mess with them.

But Coke’s successful recovery from that gaffe shows that people, and brands, can recover from mistakes.

Mistakes were also on my mind when I was thinking about a recent meeting with Nantucket Nectars co-founder Tom First, a successful beverage entrepreneur in his own right.

First has been back in the business for about five years, and in that period he had developed a pretty solid product called owater. Its infused line won a “Best Functional Product” from BevNET in 2007. It has acquired some dependable, regional DSD relationships, but – and First admitted this when we met – it hads’t set the world on fire.

For a businessman like First, who has very high standards and very little patience, that particular situation means that things aren’t going right. Somewhere along the line, there had been a strategic mistake. Nothing as big or as public as the New Coke disaster, but something similar. First hadn’t found the soul of his brand, and to do that, he had to admit that his existing strategy wasn’t working. Trying to steer away from a core principle of Nantucket Nectars, specifically, the idea that the people associated with the brand can help define the brand, wasn’t working, either.

“Ninety percent of the carnage in this industry comes from those who do not admit something isn’t working,” he told me. So, despite the fact that it forced him to confront his own past at Nantucket Nectars, First has made some changes.

At Nantucket Nectars, the people behind the brand were a huge part of its early success. It felt ragtag. Two best buds making juice on a boat. Dogs in the office. A young, energetic staff selling lemonade.

But ragtag doesn’t fit today’s serious issues. People are concentrating, working hard, even at recreation. With owater, First’s original products might have engaged that new purposefulness, but he hadn’t engaged the people. The functions were there, sure, but the personalities, even if they were older now, more serious, still needed to be there as well. By including them in the brand now, First thinks he’s got things turned around.

Now, on owater labels, there aren’t any more blank, spare color panels; instead, there are athletes – real people – who have the day-glo coloring of Peter Max figures. They are members of the owater company, many of whom are fitness-crazed themselves, or people who have written in to tell him they’re training with owater, or folks who First and company have sought out themselves because their serious amateur athleticism dovetails with the brand’s aspiration to be consumers’ healthy sports drink of choice.

“Health and fitness is becoming such a big part of our culture,” First said. “Those are the people we want to sell to. We want to reach out and tell stories about inspirational people who care about what they put in their bodies.”

In that vein, although the electrolytes have stayed, most of the “Infused” line’s other functional characteristics are gone. Instead, there are more and more people on the labels – they will change twice a year, up to the point where 70 different athletes will appear on any one flavor. What had felt antiseptic, strictly functional, now feels – and is intended to be – personal.

At Coke, when they made the New Coke mistake, the problem was that the company had forgotten the meaning of the brand: a reliable pause for refreshment. After admitting the mistake, Coke got back to its soul, and continued to grow for another 20-plus years. Rival PepsiCo recently made moves to identify the brand with another long-held theme, that the brand’s core is not reliability and sameness, but revolution and change.

Of course, for First and owater, a label change, a little momentum, doesn’t guarantee success. There’s tons of competition, including PepsiCo’s own G2, which is also focusing on the serious amateur athlete. There’s a tough economy. All kinds of things can still go wrong.

But there are changes that First – and his visitors – can easily notice that bode well, even in the office. A German Shepherd greets you at the entrance, and the offices themselves have decamped to a Concord, Mass. barn. There’s a little bit of – dare we – Nantucket about the whole thing. And First is starting to realize that maybe that isn’t so bad.

“You can’t skip steps,” he said. “The voice of the brand, its ingredients, the way you tell the story, develops organically. At Nantucket Nectars, when it really ‘happened,’ the company and the brand had such a soul. The people at this company, they are starting to feel like they believe in it, too.”