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When A New Name Is Bad PR: A Rebranding Gone Sour

A new name often brings a reputation lift – suggesting renewed relevance or sweetening an unpalatable handle. Which would you rather eat – Patagonian Tooth Fish or Chilean Sea Bass?

But beware the rebranding for reputation reasons. It can make news, but not always in a good way. Right now, a bitter battle’s brewing over the corn syrup industry’s plan to rebrand its product as “corn sugar.”

As any nutrition-minded consumer knows, high-fructose corn syrup has been blamed for a myriad of ills, from tooth decay to our skyrocketing national obesity rate.

Now, Big Corn is moving to challenge that reputation. It’s cooked up a new, more natural name and backed  its rebranding with TV spots that position corn syrup as natural, and as virtually identical to sugar. The commercials are beautifully choreographed scenes of a wholesome family wandering through sunlit cornfields. Each culminates in the tagline, “Sugar is sugar.”

Not so, says the beet and cane sugar industry. The corn syrup competitors allege that because HFCS doesn’t occur naturally and must undergo a chemical process to be created, Big Corn is trying to, uh, sugar-coat the facts.

The government seems to agree. This week the FDA issued another warning to the corn refiners industry about use of the term. Though the FDA can’t regulate the industry, they can cite individual companies who claim it as an ingredient in their products.

So far, Big Corn has not backed down. But the rebranding campaign has done the opposite of what it intended. A new name may be easier to swallow, but reputation management goes beyond sweet talk.

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