28 September 2009

Vegemite iSnack 2.0: Who is being trolled?

Thousands of words have already been tweeted, blogged and otherwise published about Kraft's announcement on Saturday of the new name for its Vegemite cream cheese blend brand extension: Vegemite iSnack 2.0.

As the immediate twitstorm begins to abate, some interesting and thoughtful analysis is emerging. Much of the latest thinking seems to settle around the theme of "It’s so bad, it must be a deliberate publicity stunt".

There certainly is a funny smell about all of this, and it's not yeast extract. Given that the name is supposed to conjure up associations of the internet, I think we should turn to the web for a better and more current term than "publicity stunt" – I reckon it’s a giant troll. Problem is, at this stage, I’m still not sure who's being trolled.

Are consumers the victims? Is our riled-up response on social media playing into Kraft's hands?

The thought that Kraft might risk a valuable, iconic brand with such deep cultural connections in Australia for the sake of some very dubious publicity makes me Vege-mighty uncomfortable. And yet it does seem one plausible explanation.

And not everyone thinks the controversy about the name is a bad thing. Marketing academic Kenneth Miller of the University of Technology, Sydney, says "it's good PR" and "it won’t damage the parent brand".

The idea that "any publicity is good publicity" may have some validity in the case of some up-and-coming brands that consumers have never heard of. Think Paris Hilton.

But it simply doesn’t hold true for a mature brand that’s a household name, especially not in the internet age.

And ugly brand extensions may not cannibalise sales of the parent brand but they sure as hell can damage the image of the parent brand and the reputation of its owner. It's clear that many consumers are feeling a lot less warm and fuzzy about the Vegemite brand and Kraft today than they were last week.

Alternatively, has Kraft been trolled?

The winner of the contest, Western Australian web designer Dean Robbins, admits "it was all a bit tongue-in-cheek, really". In his post hoc explanation, Robbins says the "i" phenomenon and web 2.0 "have been recent revolutions" (my emphasis).

Ahem. Not exactly "recent". The iMac was launched in 1998 – that’s 10 years ago – and the iPod in 2001. Putting an "i" in front of a name has long since had its day as a legitimate "cool" branding strategy.

So for a web designer to be suggesting a name using clich├ęs like "i" and "2.0" smacks of a giant piss-take.

Kraft hasn’t shared with us just how many of the 48,000 entries from 35,000 individuals it received were, to put it kindly, "tongue in cheek", but I’d be willing to bet it was a fair percentage.

The likelihood of getting a great name from a public contest was always low. Seriously, anyone from a smart brand identity agency – or anyone who aspires to work in one – would have run a mile from a half-arsed crowd-sourcing exercise like this.

And it's impossible to imagine that Kraft didn't have a "What if we run a contest and only get crap names?" strategy. So did they have a few ideas already up their sleeves? Was "iSnack 2.0" one of them?

Still, it’s hard to believe one of the world’s biggest FMCG companies would make a strategic branding decision – putting its faith and brand equity on the line with a name like this – without taking some expert branding advice and/or doing some decent consumer research. So who is advising Kraft, anyway, and have they led Kraft astray? Or is this mess all of Kraft's own making?

Kraft might well be inclined to dismiss the almost universally negative views expressed on Twitter and the blogosphere as coming from an irrelevant Gen Y elite, and not reflective of the views of the heartland of Australian consumers. In which case, why did they go with a hipster, pseudo-Gen Y name like iSnack 2.0, as suggested by a Gen Y web designer?

Ultimately, it may turn out that Kraft have tried to be too smart for their own good. Trolled themselves.

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