How Capri Sun Practices Child’s Play

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Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable InfluenceFounder of MindfulMarketing.org 

Have you ever been food pranked?  Someone gives you something to eat and “Yech!” it turns out to be much different than you expected—toothpaste inside an Oreo is a classic gag.  Kids love to prank each other, but should the maker of one of the world’s most popular kids’ drinks fool its biggest fans?

Capri Sun, internationally-renowned producer of juice pouches, has decided to prank not just a few kids but a big portion of its target market by filling select silver packages with water.  The company filmed reactions of several pint-sized punk’d consumers, who were given unmarked pouches and asked to test “a new flavor” of juice.  It then edited the outtakes into a few video promotions.

Compared to most food pranks, which often elicit expressions of disgust, the responses to Capri Sun’s ruse were rather subdued.  Perplexed young taste testers made comments like, “It’s very plain,” “tastes a little bit bland,” and “it doesn’t have any flavor.”

What made Carpi Sun’s prank poignant is that the company’s juice pouches are familiar to so many.  Since its introduction in Germany in 1969, the company has expanded distribution of its drinks to 119 countries.  According to its website, “ In 2014, our fans all over the world drank 6 billion pouches of Capri-Sun!”

One significant serving of drink sales have come from the greater Chicago area, where Kraft Heinz acts as distributor and a newly-formed advertising firm, Mischief at No Fixed Address, produced the prank.  The campaign’s full scope includes distribution of five million filtered water pouches labeled, “We’re sorry it’s not juice,” to Chicagoland schools for free.  Also appearing prominently at the top of each package is “Capri Sun” in 70-point all capital letters.

Given the immense physical, mental, and financial stress the pandemic has placed on kids and their parents, it’s kind of Capri Sun to help schools, where fountains are shut down and children need other ways of getting water.  But, will the company’s corporate social responsibility really remedy that problem, and what’s likely to be the long-term impact on the brand?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the city of Chicago, not including the greater metropolitan area, has a population of 2.69 million, of which 21.2% are under the age of 18 and 6.5% are younger than five.  Those stats suggest that there are nearly 400k school-age children in Chicago (570,280 – 174,850 = 395,430).

Providing all of those children with a drink a day for a week would mean 1,977,150 water pouches.  A full month of water would entail a total of 7,908,600 (2.9 million more than Capri Sun’s pledge).  Keeping kids hydrated from September through December would require about 31,634,400 pouches.

Of course, no one company should be expected to satisfy so much demand for free.  Meeting massive public needs tends to take a team effort—collaboration among the public sector, for-profit companies, and other organizations.

Still, although it may seem cynical or even ungrateful, it’s reasonable to wonder whether the social impact of Capri Sun’s philanthropy is proportional to the promotional benefits the firm may receive:  Do a few drinks of water warrant the brand splash in front of hundreds of thousands of captive young consumers?

When a company gives away something significant, it’s fair for its brand to benefit.  However, the amount of that benefit should be on par with the amount of social good done.  The rationale is analogous to a firm needing to ante up millions of dollars, not thousands, for naming rights to a building or stadium.

It’s hard to know Capri Sun’s costs in producing and distributing five million pouches of filtered water, but an estimate of .10 per packet would put the total cost at $500,000.  That’s a significant spend, but not that much for a firm with annual revenues of about a half billion dollars.  A few other issues further complicate the equation.

First, Capri Sun’s promotional benefits might be multiplied in that it seeks to put pouches with its name into the hands of the most impressionable of consumers—children.  Kids are understandably less discerning of promotional messages than are adults, which is why the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) prioritizes protecting children.

Second, it seems that there should be some subtraction from the social good Capri Sun portends because of the message emblazoned on the foil pouches: “We’re sorry it’s not juice. [It’s just] Filtered Water.”

Is Capri Sun dissing in front of kids one of the most important substances for human existence?  Of course, the company is trying to be funny.  There is, however, the unhumorous reality that many children consume far too much sugar, much of it coming from sugary drinks.  To its credit, Capri Sun Fruit Punch contains a relatively low 13 grams of sugar.  That’s not much compared to some drinks, but it is high compared to water.

Then, there’s an even more intriguing twist . . .

On August 5, the Chicago Sun Times announced major Lori Lightfoot’s decision to close Chicago Public Schools due to worsening coronavirus conditions—the city’s children will be learning online.  That news would seem to punch a hole in Capri Sun’s water pouch plans; however, over two weeks later, on August 21, an AdAge editor’s pick article described the campaign with no mention of the district’s pivot away from in-person education.

Maybe AdAge missed the mayor’s announcement, or perhaps Capri Sun has found another way to distribute the water without access to kids in classrooms.  Assuming the later, there’s still one more potentially serious flaw in Capri Sun’s ‘Got Juice?’ strategy:

By associating its iconic packaging with a less desirable drinking experience, the company risks leaving a bad taste in the mouth of young, impressionable consumers.

Can you imagine sipping a Starbuck’s coffee and discovering it was only warm water, or biting into a Hershey’s Bar and finding it to be sans-sugar?  It’s doubtful either company would intentionally give even one consumer such an indelibly unpleasant experience, let alone broadcast the negative reaction for millions of others to see and learn from vicariously.

As suggested at the onset, a large part of Capri Sun’s food prank success was the fact that so many people, including children, recognize the straw-impaled drink packs and associate them with sweet refreshment and other pleasant sensations.  Those positive associations can be easily washed away, though, by even one unfavorable brand encounter that one experiences him/herself or sees others endure.

Of course, a natural retort is, “It was just a joke!”  That’s true, and the prank itself was kind of funny.  However, there are some things that food and drink companies just don’t joke about, a main one being the taste of their products.  Any such negative association is too risky.

It’s a little like when Watergate-embroiled president Richard Nixon infamously declared, “I am not a crook.”  Regrettably for him, many people forgot the words “I am not” and remembered Nixon and “crook.”  Any negative frame is inherently precarious, particularly when it involves presidents, and food.

Advertising humor can be very effective, and who loves to laugh more than kids?  However, although Capri Sun’s water switcheroo may have been well-intended, the campaign threatens to spill much of the brand equity the drink maker has stored up over fifty-plus years, which makes “I’m sorry it’s not juice “Simple-Minded Marketing.”


About the Author: Dr. David Hagenbuch is a Professor of Marketing at Messiah College, the author of Honorable Influence, and the founder MindfulMarketing.org, which aims to encourage ethical marketing.

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