The Orange-and-straw Tropicana juice carton left us in the last days of 2008. Another memorable American consumer product icon is gone, another brand metonym is dead.
Writing an obituary about a particular iteration of a brand is like mourning the death of a butterfly. Both are short-lived, fleeting glimpses into the history, and the genealogy, of all butterflies and all the products that came before them, plus all their future evolutions. And while Darwinian evolutionary steps and rebranding exercises occur in significantly different ways in nature and the marketplace, sometimes the impact of man’s action in nature, much like the consequences of branding consultancy decisions to companies, lead to very abrupt changes to our natural and artificial landscapes.
Such is the case with Arnell’s new packaging for Tropicana, over Sterling Brands’ previous facelift of the famous design. The logic and reasons behind its demise and replacement have been thoroughly reported in articles in the general and trade press, and much has been said and commented in the food and graphic design blogosphere: from Tropicana’s brand equity mismanage to the bad use of type and even a thorough, step-by-step critique.
Tropicana’s history is yet another case of how ingenious, entrepreneurial and innovative immigrants created the products, the companies and the brands that built America during the 20th century. First sporting its own personification in the lovely “Tropic Ana”, the brand evolved to the “Straw in Orange” icon most Americans identify with non-concentrated orange juice. Just like many other of these iconic companies, Tropicana – both the maker and its brands and products – have been sold, merged, and passed around from corporation to corporation, the last of which has been, since 1998, PepsiCo.
What was before an easily recognizable, lovable symbol in the orange juice aisle has been eradicated forever by another branding firm, hired by the most recent board of directors. The new packaging is as generic and ephemeral as the nature of today’s corporations, who decide over a whole company’s past, present and future with little responsibility and accountability – particularly in the time of crisis. One must only hear Tropicana’s own president, Neil Campbell, to understand that fast and cheap talk may be enough for our fleeting purchases of orange juice – in the end, this is only orange juice, not a species on the verge of extinction. But when it comes to the history and heritage of a brand, PepsiCo has applied to Tropicana what used to be the highest penalty in the Roman Empire and the Republic of Venice: damnatio memoriae.
Perhaps what should be mourned in the now dead Tropicana package is how a considerable part of a company’s history and personality can be forever eradicated in just one, multi-million dollar gesture. This casualty of commerce and design also questions the nature of manufacturing, marketing and consumption in our post-post-industrial present: as with extinct butterflies, converted factory buildings or quaint advertisements, we may have to visit a museum to catch glimpses of the brands we now take for granted.
PS: In an unimaginable twist of faith, the day after I wrote this post Tropicana announced it will throw away its new packaging and bring back its Straw-in-Orange design in March. Pressed by the outcry and demand of its most loyal consumers (plus a mob of discontent graphic designers), the company will however keep their new (and clever) new orange squeezable cap. So instead of losing its beloved icon, Tropicana cartons will, from now on, boast two. From supermarket shelf to hypothetical museum vitrine and back again, a brand has in the fleeting period of just over two months been both condemned to and salvaged from oblivion.