Why The Package Matters

R  emember New Coke? It was perhaps the most spectacular product flop of the 1980s.

If you’re old enough, you may have taken The Pepsi Challenge. The Pepsi Challenge invited people to sip blind samples of Pepsi and Coke to determine which they liked better. It worked.  For several years, distant runner up Pepsi gained significant market share, until they had almost pulled even with Coca-Cola. Finally, nervous Coke execs changed their product to become more Pepsi-esque.

Rather than a counter-punch, though, the launch of New Coke was such a massive bomb that within six months The Coca-Cola Company had re-introduced their old formula as Classic Coke. What happened, exactly?

In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell makes a brilliant argument that the failure of New Coke wasn’t the product itself. In blind tests, people actually preferred it over both Pepsi and Classic Coke.

The failure was about packaging, or the environment of the drink, rather than the drink itself. Gladwell notes that while the Pepsi Challenge worked, Coke failed to see that colas aren’t supposed to be consumed with a blindfold.

He writes,

Clever packaging doesn’t allow a company to put out a bad-tasting product. The taste of the product matters a great deal. Their point is simply that when we put something in our mouth and in the blink of an eye decide whether it tastes good or not, we are reacting not only to the evidence from our taste buds and salivary glands but also to the evidence of our eyes and memories and imaginations, and it is foolish of a company to service one dimension and ignore another. (Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink. p. 165)

In other words, when we drink Coke, we’re not just consuming flavored sugar water, but an entire sensory experience. A brand.

After the re-launch and marketing of Coca-Cola, it regained its lost market share, and hasn’t lost it since.


Sipping A Straw Man 

As an advocate of better communication in church, I have heard for years the concern that advances in technology and practices of marketing might somehow “distract” from the message. Asking this question is a straw man argument, a logical fallacy.

Everything we make is the idea itself, and its package. 

We’re just more familiar with old packages than new ones, so new ones seem like inappropriate persuasion tactics.

When we decide if we like something, we don’t decide in a vacuum, but in a multi-dimensional environment that encompasses all of our sensory experience.
Persuasion can be scary word. It suggests, for some, and especially in church work, a dangerous or even immoral manipulation of an unfettered truth. It connotes an Elmer Gantry figure, a shyster disfiguring decency on the way to the bank. And there are certainly unethical anecdotes.

Yet there’s a relationship between what we say and how we say it. Aristotle’s understanding of rhetoric was a set of instruments or tools used to create a specific persuasive goal. But the contemporary study of communication as a discipline has revealed deeper connections.

More recent conceptions of rhetoric treat art as intrinsic to human knowing itself. Since we employ language as a symbol-making system in order to communicate … dismissing rhetoric as nothing more than manipulative efforts to influence others, even when people use persuasion appropriately, is naive. Rhetoric, for good or ill, is intrinsic to all the convictional understanding of our lives–to all reasoning. (Reid, Robert and Lucy Lind Hogan. The Six Deadly Sins of Preaching: Becoming Responsible for the Faith We Proclaim. p. 9)

Those who think of communication as purely manipulative tactics, for good or ill, have an unexamined philosophy. They see communication as an instrument for a linear transaction. In my first book, The Wired Church, I called this the AV mentality. It’s an approach that sees communication as a pneumatic tube that shoots our message to the receiver.


Master Communicator

JM Logo 250So, marketing isn’t inherently unethical or a manipulation. “Getting the word out,” as it were, is an inexorable part of the word itself.

Luckily for us, Jesus already had this figured out. If we’re truly going to understand how to present our idea, we need to look at the person who was the master at it, Jesus.

Welcome to Jesus Marketer, a twelve week series starting now.


This is part 1 of a 12 part series, Jesus Marketer.

Next, Part 2: The #1 Reason People Don’t Receive Your Message

About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).