Positioning is the DNA of a brand. It defines its personality, look, feel, and message.  Everything that touches consumers should flow from this strategic blueprint.  Companies select which consumers to market to based upon business factors, and then the brand positioning is constructed to determine what to say and how to engage with them to maximize brand preference and purchase.


This is Branding 101.  It is taught in every business school in the world, and is de rigeur at consumer packaged goods companies.  That’s why I was profoundly confused at the positioning paradox I found on my first brand,  in 1992, when I went to work at one of the largest and best marketing companies.

Mello Yello is a tiny, tactical citrus soft drink brand at the Coca-Cola Company.  It was created in 1979 so Coke bottlers could compete with Mountain Dew.  Traditionally sold in the U.S. southeast, it is a high caffeine, high sugar, but low carbonation drink.  It’s primary claim to fame is that Tom Cruise drove a Mello Yello car in the movie “Days of Thunder”.  More credibly, Kyle Petty drove a real Mello Yello car to some success in NASCAR back in the 90’s.  


Even back then, when I was on the brand, there seemed to be considerable tension between the name, the intrinsic characteristics of the drink, and the way it was marketed.  Could something jammed with caffeine and sugar really be called “Mello”?  Was NASCAR really the best way to promote a “mellow” property?


This conundrum was heightened through the mid 90’s as consumers - and the market leader: Mountain Dew - began to increasingly focus on high caffeine and high energy.  The advent of extreme/action sports at the time added edge and panache to these drinks.  While Mello Yello’s original positioning and name was generated from the low carbonation aspect of the drink, the consumer marketplace evolved and kids began drinking it because it had a tangible kick!  


All these years later, Coke seems to continue to be somewhat perplexed at how to address this positioning challenge between the name and the product.  There are billboards out now that proclaim both, “There’s nothing mellow about it” and "Choose your smooth".  Herein lies the strategic rub.  A brand cannot credibly occupy different - and certainly not conflicting - spaces at the same time.  For example, a hip hop radio station can’t - credibly - play country music.  It just doesn’t make sense; it confuses consumers and has no choice but to hurt the brand.


It feels like the business aspirations of the brand have pretty much always been dragged down by the Mello Yello name.  The volume is, of course, in the high caffeine/high energy space.  In fact, I would guess that many younger consumers participate in this soft drink category as a proxy for the stronger energy drinks like Red Bull etc. that are so popular.   Last year, Mountain Dew sold 628 million cases while Mello Yello sold 43 million (Sundrop is second behind MD in this category).  Certainly, there's room for Mello Yello to grow.  The brand seems hamstrung because of low internal resources and expectations - yes; but it can’t be helped by the name and marketing challenges as well.   So, all that said, here are some observations with a solution in mind:

  1. Coke can’t change the name.  The truth is that Mello Yello really isn’t that important for Coca-Cola to invest the resources required to recast and relaunch the brand under a new (albeit more strategic) moniker.  Whatever the upside, for Coke to maximize share and profit from this brand, then they have to solve this positioning problem with the name as is.  


  1. Coke shouldn’t change the formulation to accommodate the name.  You could solve the positioning issue by defanging the drink of its caffeine punch - but then no one would buy it.  


  1. Since the problem is the conflict between the name and its formulation, and it doesn’t seem feasible for Coke to change either, then the solution must be a marketing one.  The ultimate solution lies in language that embraces the inherent contradictions of Mello Yello but then turns that conflict on its head so that instead of acting like a "strategic drag" - holding the brand back, it actually pushes the brand forward.  

In the same way that Avis leveraged its perpetual underdog status into the “We try harder” positioning and campaign, Coke should create messaging that resolves this tension in a way that drives sales.   Although the current “There’s nothing mellow about it” line could be seen as an attempt at this, it falls short creatively and competes with existing marketing messages (e.g. “the original smooth”).  


I’m not a copywriter (and I certainly don’t play one on TV), but something simple and powerful like: "Mello Yello.  Not." would seem to directionally get at what needs to be done.   Probably a more powerful answer lies in developing language that, in a cool, youthful and contemporary way communicates that the low carbonation aspect of the drink actually makes it easier to down/pound more of the stuff that provides a bigger boost.  Less burn = more kick = more fun!   I know a young, hip ad team could do wonders with that idea.  


For sure, Coke needs to resolve this conflict and free the brand to be whatever it can be.  Since Mello Yello’s national relaunch in 2010, the company seems to be spending more meaningfully behind the brand.  Whatever the investment, the ROI has no choice but to be compromised by the persistence of this nagging positioning conflict.  C'mon Coke,  this is a small potatoes problem for you.  Let’s smooth this strategic speed bump out once and for all.  Call me, an old Mello Yello assistant brand manager has some ideas!  :-)


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Tags: beverages, brand, branding, coca-cola, coke, cpg, marketing, mello, positioning, strategy, More…yello


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