Chew On This Branding Dilemma: Are Controversial Products Worth The Trouble Long Term?

Amid growing controversy about the safety of energy drinks, Wrigley plans to introduce a caffeinated gum. Is the market demand worth the potential branding bruise?

Energy drinks, packed with caffeine, have surged in sales in North America ever since the successful introduction of Red Bull in the U.S. in 1997. Since then, the widespread usage of these highly-caffeinated drinks has caused a myriad of controversies. Let’s review, shall we?

And just in case we haven’t cited enough problems with energy drinks, there is also a new study that shows that U.S. emergency room visits caused by energy drinks doubled in just four years (from 10,000 in 2007 to 20,000 in 2011)—and most of the victims are young adults or teens.

OK, we understand: energy drinks are popular these days because people are really, really tired. Really tired. But clearly, providing jolts of caffeine in the form of colorfully-packaged bottled drinks is not only controversial, but also life-threatening.

So why in the world would one of the world’s biggest food corporations, Wrigley, want to introduce an energy gum now?

Yes, in the midst of all this energy drink sturm and drang, Wrigley’s Alert Energy Caffeine Gum is coming soon to a store counter near you. Now, supposedly this gum will be targeted at over-25 adults (with oh-so-helpful warning labels on how to control caffeine consumption), but we all know who’s going to be the main market for this new eyes-wide-open gum—those same teens and young adults who are currently being hospitalized for energy drink overdoses.

It’s clear there’s a market for this product. What’s less clear, from a branding perspective, is whether the extra corporate profits are worth wading into a product sector that’s already scarred with health scares and threatened with multiple investigations in multiple countries.

With more and more attention being given to our society’s struggles with obesity (which is now beginning to be a bigger global crisis than hunger), might Wrigley instead turn their attention to developing a gum that helps with weight management? Or some other product that helps people, instead of one that is just waiting to be abused by younger consumers?

And lest you think this is just a simplistic do-gooder perspective, look at the corner the soda business has put itself over the years by constantly pushing larger drink sizes and more free restaurant refills for its calorie-ridden soft drinks over the years, despite its increasing link to that obesity crisis. As that crisis has worsened, the soda market share has declined, leading The Wall Street Journal to wonder if this is the end of an era. The New York City mayor’s attempt to ban large servings of soft drinks may be just the first warning shot in a growing war against the beverages.

Brands need to keep in mind not only market trends when developing products, but societal trends as well. Wrigley is just inviting a huge negative backlash it doesn’t need by gumming up the works with a product that can’t help but cause controversy.

[Image: Flickr user Gunnvor Karita]

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