Alan Mitchell: When brand and company integrity walk side by side

The media criticism over Sunny Delight was a disaster for P&G. It plans to relaunch the drink and is re-evaluating its marketing, says Alan Mitchell

Sunny Delight. What do these two words conjure up for you? A popular children’s soft drink? Or, a chemical cocktail “fluoro medicine” that is saturated with sugar, turns you orange, and tastes like molten Teletubbies? A marketing con, in other words.

Such contrasting views of Sunny Delight are one of the reasons why, from April, Sunny Delight owner Procter & Gamble (P&G) is undertaking a root-and-branch makeover of the brand encompassing everything about it – product formulation and variants, packaging, logo, advertising and positioning – including a &£12m integrated marketing campaign. Brand manager Jon Lear says: “This is a really big intervention in terms of both product and marketing”.

P&G’s problem is already the stuff of legend. Back in 1998, Sunny Delight was one of the most successful product launches ever, leaping into the top 20 almost from the outset. Its initial launch strategy – a reassuring “better for you” message for mums and a “great taste” message for children – was spot on, notes Neil Broome, author of a recent Datamonitor report on marketing soft drinks to children.

The trouble started when pressure groups and the media rubbished P&G’s good-for-you claims – highlighting the low levels of juice (five per cent) and the high levels of additives, such as vegetable oil and sugar – “consumers felt they had been duped,” says Broome. This generated a backlash against the brand.

Sunny Delight began to look like a “bad-for-you” drink dishonestly marketed as “good for you”. Indeed not only was it a con, it was a rip-off. P&G’s claims that Sunny Delight needs chilled distribution and display to maintain taste and Vitamin C levels were widely dismissed (as Broome puts it) as a “cynical attempt to give a shelf-stable product a fresh, premium image”.

At the launch of Britvic’s “me-too” product Juice Up – which boasts more vitamins and a much higher juice content – marketing director Andrew Marsden declared: “P&G promised something it couldn’t deliver and now it has been found out”.

The backlash has cost P&G dearly. Sales have sagged – down ten per cent in 2000 and a further 35 per cent in 2001 – wiping tens of millions of pounds off the brand’s value. At its peak, the business was worth about &£150m. Now it’s closer to &£70m. Lear admits, “Sunny Delight has stabilised far below its potential.”

But how could such an expert marketer as P&G make such a hash of things? There is no single reason. Rather, it’s a combination of factors.

Perhaps, for instance, P&G focused “too much” on its existing consumers. P&G has a habit of researching its products to death – the phrase “our consumers tell us” is never far from brand managers’ lips – but the crucial influence in this saga was not its loyal consumers, but sceptics. P&G, it seems, simply underestimated the influence of one upon the other.

It was also charging into unfamiliar territory. Sunny Delight was P&G’s first foray into drinks – in the UK at least – and it didn’t have as deep an understanding of markets, issues – and, yes, pressure groups – as it has developed in other categories such as detergents. P&G brand PR manager Sally Woodage says: “P&G didn’t understand the scale of the issue. There was a real sense of shock, even personal hurt. It was like, ‘where is all this coming from?'”

P&G also proved less than adept at issue management, as opposed to crisis management. Crises are horrible, but at least they’re clear. They hit you in the face and you have to drop everything to confront them. But issues like those surrounding Sunny Delight just niggle away with cumulative effect: a sideswipe here, a sneering article there. Woodage says: “There was no one incident P&G could respond to”.

Meanwhile, P&G became a victim of its own earlier success. Sunny Delight’s rocketing rise to the top made it an icon. And as an icon it attracted criticisms that could be levelled at any brand within the category. But its very success – coupled with its perceived dishonesty – unleashed a deep well of cynicism about marketing among opinion formers, for whom the words “marketing” and “ploy” naturally go together.

It wasn’t really the product under fire. It was the marketing. This wasn’t just a test of a product’s consumer value, it was also a test of P&G’s values. P&G’s success in a territory it knows like the back of its hand – demonstrable product superiority – has became dependent upon success in altogether less familiar territory – of demonstrable corporate integrity.

P&G’s Lear admits that in Sunny Delight’s original marketing, “P&G drove some elements too hard”. But, he insists, it was “never P&G’s intention to mislead. The level of criticism was shocking. Now it feels like P&G is the underdog”.

So he’s sticking to his guns about things like ingredients and the chiller cabinet. Vegetable oil is used to carry oil-soluble vitamins, he insists – and the amount is no more than you’d find in a fresh orange. Likewise: if the product is stored in ambient temperatures, its level of vitamin C would fall below the labelled level within seven days, with taste deteriorating sooner: after about three days.

At the same time, he is addressing the health-based criticisms of the product, while simultaneously beating a full-scale retreat from all health claims. Juice levels are being pumped up from five per cent to 15 per cent. Four “no-added-sugar” tastes are being introduced to give mothers a choice between sugar and artificial sweeteners. And all the marketing is focused on taste with the introduction of flavours like Blackcurrant Blast and Tropical Tornado. Any mention of added vitamins is now relegated to the small print on the back. In other words, says Lear, Sunny Delight is “just like other soft drinks”.

If he can turn people’s attention away from the marketing and back to the product he will have succeeded. Sunny Delight could shine again. But the fact remains that the demands for demonstrable product superiority and for demonstrable corporate integrity are moving ever closer together.

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