In the world of marketing, the second hardest thing to do is to establish a brand. The hardest is to change the brand.
But that’s what Metamucil is trying to do with an integrated marketing campaign that includes placing ads that look like teases for articles on the Yahoo! homepage and airing television commercials starring Michael Strahan, former professional football star and morning talk show host.
In the TV spot, Strahan talks about the Meta effect, which for him means that he doesn’t get hungry between meals. He mouths the campaign’s slogan “See how one small change can lead to good things” and applies it exclusively to the challenge of not getting hungry between meals. The implication, of course, is that Metamucil will help you lose weight. (Is it time for a joke yet?—something like: “Yeah it will help you lose a lot of weight…and quickly!)
When you hit the link in the Yahoo! “sponsored content” ad, it takes you to a web page with a photo of Strahan next to packages of Metamucil and a large circle within which we can read the entire branding message: Experience the Meta effect. See how one small change can lead to good things.
Below this billboard is another one with a headline in a circle “Make a Change with Meta” next to which is text: “Try Meta products and you might be inspired to” followed by a list of other small changes one could make to improve health, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator or eating only half a muffin. The billboard asserts that one small healthy choice often leads to another. The implication is that taking Metamucil can be the start of many small changes, which together will transform the individual.
Next come lists of the health benefits that three Metamucil products provide: the standard product, Metamucil bars and a new product, MetaBiotic. The three lists cover a wide range of benefits, including:
- Helps you feel less hungry
- Helps you maintain healthy blood sugar level
- Helps lower cholesterol and promote heart health
- Helps promote digestive health
- Maintains digestive balance
- Helps satisfy hunger as a healthy snack (the bar)
Anyone notice what’s missing?
Nowhere in any ad does Metamucil talk about the one thing that people know about it: It’s a laxative!
This lack of connection between Metamucil and what people already know about it dooms this rebranding campaign.
Metamucil holds a firmly-established place in culture and our cultural vocabulary. (By cultural vocabulary I mean the cultural artifacts like entertainment, art, commercials and historical moments that virtually everyone in a culture recognizes and uses). Metamucil will make just about everyone think of constipation, especially as it affects the elderly. If you don’t believe me, try googling “jokes about Metamucil.” I did, and here’s what I found in the first few pages of search results:
- Did you hear about the new Matzos? They’re made from Wheat and Metamucil. They’re called, “Let My People Go.”
- The 77-year-old senator John Glenn said this time in orbit, he’s got more food choices—he can mix his Tang with Geritol or Metamucil.
- You know you’re old if your house catches fire and the first thing you grab is your Metamucil.
- Yo mama so old, she eats Metamucil for breakfast.
- A writer reviewing the movie, “The Expendables,” which stars a large number of aging action stars, states: “Judging by the reviews, the latest entry in the Metamucil Squad franchise is only good for laughs of the unintentional variety.”
- The 10 least popular Halloween handouts: # 3: Metamucil in a straw.
- You’re so old you sprinkle Metamucil on your Metamucil
When someone mentions Metamucil, virtually everyone cracks a smile and thinks of constipation, and particularly as that dreaded ailment affects the elderly.
I understand the Metamucil strategy. By broadening the reasons to take Metamucil, Proctor & Gamble hopes to expand the market base and move more product more quickly (and maybe more easily). The problem is that the existing perception of Metamucil is strongly engrained in our culture. I’m certain that many people when they see Michael Strahan talking about not getting hungry between meals make such jokes as “that’s because he’s too busy in the bathroom” or just exclaiming,” He’s full of it.” The many clever if scabrous ways that people can mock a nostrum for constipation are just too tempting.
Replacing one brand message with another is never easy. The classic example occurred decades ago when Anacin realized that its little pills had more painkilling ingredients than other over-the-counter remedies for minor aches and pains. It dumped millions in a pilot marketing program to tell one metropolitan area that it had more painkiller. And sales went up in the region—by about 17%. Unfortunately, the public already thought of a competitor’s product as having the most painkilling ingredients. Without spending any additional advertising dollars, the competitor increased sales by more than 30%. Anacin was able to make people care about painkilling strength, but unable to overcome the public’s prior perception of the brands.
And at least painkilling was what everyone always knew Anacin did. For decades, we’ve been told that Metamucil does one thing and one thing only—helps you go #2. We hear it in the commercials and we hear it in all the jokes. Now we’re supposed to believe that Metamucil does a bunch of other stuff, and that probably isn’t going to happen, no matter how much P&G spends.
The makers of Metamucil may have been better off coming up with a new name for a new line of products that might have the same contents as Metamucil, but would not be tied to the meaning conveyed to most people by the word “Metamucil.” Meanwhile, P&G could have done maintenance advertising for the Metamucil line and tried to squeeze as much profit as it could out of the old brand—quickly and without much effort.