How Assumptions Destroyed The Citrus Hill Brand

Even the world’s most successful marketing companies periodically fall into the “assumption trap” where they are confident that they know enough to sell their product without pursuing new information to challenge their assumptions.

I fell in this trap only a few months into my first brand management job at Procter & Gamble. My first project was working on the fledgling Citrus Hill Orange Juice brand. The brand was struggling, a distant third in the race against Tropicana and Minute Maid. P&G held leadership in about 90% of the product categories in which it did business. The third-place status of Citrus Hill had made the brand a target of senior management. They wanted Citrus Hill to ascend to the top of orange juice brands — FAST.

The brand group and research team at the Winton Hill lab were frantically working on what we did best—product upgrades. New formulations of Citrus Hill were developed until the juice won blind taste tests against all competitors—particularly Tropicana and Minute Maid. Excited about our results we now believed the competition could be beat. After all, we now had the best tasting orange juice in the world.

P&G invested more than two million dollars in a new advertising campaign to tell consumers that Citrus Hill tasted better than any other orange juice. Management was confident and had high expectations. The new advertising aired. Everyone was ready with tall glasses of juice in hand awaiting the next Nielsen Research market share/sales reports to toast our triumph.

The day arrived, the results were in and the mood suddenly darkened. Nothing had happened to sales. Consumers were not moved.

The quick response from management was that the advertising must not have been delivering the message effectively. As often happens, the blame fell on the advertising agency. Testing the advertising became a self-fulfilling prophecy, and so the brand invested another million dollars to create new advertising to tell consumers that Citrus Hill tasted great. Again, with much excitement, the new ads began airing.

One month later, the same result. No consumer response. “How could this be?” the brand group kept asking. “All of our consumer research tells us that ‘good taste’ is the most important thing to consumers in choosing their orange juice.” This cycle of trying to reposition Citrus Hill for taste preference continued for several more years, until finally P&G admitted failure and pulled the brand from the marketplace.

What Consumers Say Versus What They Mean

Why did Citrus Hill fail? If you reviewed all the traditional research, the positioning of Citrus Hill lined up precisely with what consumers were telling the brand group—“good taste” was the most important thing; “freshness,” “good nutrition for the family,” and “orange juice helps brighten the morning” were secondary benefits. All these promises were built into the Citrus Hill positioning and expressed in the advertising copy and on the packaging. The brand group had used every logical and methodical tool in the P&G research arsenal to understand why consumers should prefer Citrus Hill, yet they came up empty.

What the brand group finally came to recognize is that purchase decisions aren’t always from the rational criteria consumers say to you in focus groups and other research. Among competitive products, there is often little difference in quality and product performance. This parity is especially true in categories in which the product is a commodity—including orange juice or coffee.

In this instance, while “good taste” was important, most consumers didn’t think their current orange juice tasted bad or needed to taste better. Consumers believed “100% orange juice” is “100% orange juice”—so how could there be a difference in taste between the brands?

The Citrus Hill “better taste” positioning didn’t make sense. Most consumers felt the brand they were currently buying tasted great. So, consumers weren’t lying — taste was the most important thing to them. Nevertheless, that wasn’t the differentiating criteria upon which their purchase decision rested.

Ignoring the segment of buyers who based their purchase decision only on low price (not a profitable segment in which to be a player), “freshness” was the product benefit upon which consumers primarily made their purchase decision. Many consumers believed that fresh juice was better, healthier juice—and they didn’t believe “made from concentrate” juices like Citrus Hill could be as healthy or fresh tasting.

The competitive “fresh” juice brands of Tropicana and Minute Maid knew they had a consumer advantage and played it up. Category leader Tropicana’s packaging and advertising  featured an orange with a straw inserted and the tag line “You just can’t pick a better juice—for just picked freshness, pick Tropicana Pure Premium.” Game over. Citrus Hill did not have a “fresh picked” product offering, and Tropicana had the perfect product and advertising—a straw in an orange—aligned to the consumers’ desire for “fresh” orange juice. You can’t get any fresher juice than that!

If our Citrus Hill brand group had pushed harder in challenging our assumptions we would have discovered the real consumer purchase drivers and would have realized that the promise of “great taste” would be ineffective.

Challenge all assumptions to the point of certainty.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider By: Eric Schulz, Senior Brand Strategist at The Blake Project and Co-Director of Strategic Marketing & Brand Management, Jon M. Huntsman School of Business. Excerpted from his book “Marketing in the Digital Age

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