Most of the brands we know and love began their lives as a single product that filled a need. As the need for the product grew (or more commonly, as the product grew the need) the single offering became two variations of the offering, then four, then dozens. This is why we have 29 different Gatorade flavors, seven feature packages of Ford F-150s, and 52 Colgate toothpastes (just in the United States!). This is called sku proliferation. It is the calculated increase of a product offering to reach the greatest number of people. It is a complicated operation that delicately balances distribution opportunities, shelf space, brand erosion, marketing resource allocation and navigating the point of diminishing returns. Brands like Netflix and Nike and Nestle that have been around for 10, 25, 50+ years are those who have managed that growth both through gradual evolution to match current needs and expanding their markets with bold innovation.
A decade ago I worked in the global design office for Johnson & Johnson and managed the design of BAND-AID, an iconic brand with an almost 100-year heritage of helping people feel better about their cuts and scrapes. BAND-AID’s utility is simple: cover a wound to heal. Over the decades the stewards of the brand recognized opportunities that resulted in its own sku proliferation: wound-relevant shapes, sizes and materials; improvements in packaging; diversity of strength and absorbency; the introduction of licensed characters, and many more. When one thinks of the different types of people to whom the various products cater to, it’s hard to imagine anyone looking for a BAND-AID that fits their need and not finding it.
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, BAND-AID announced on social media that they are now going to offer a product with color variations to match those with darker skin tones. A brand…whose product’s main purpose is to blend in with the surrounding skin…doesn’t offer a product that does exactly that for 30–40% of the U.S. population. If you are wondering why they haven’t already done that you are not alone. Already dozens of articles and thousands of comments have asked the same question and quickly concluded that the brand is merely being opportunistic and represents another example of systemic racism.
Except that they DID do it. Fifteen years ago. Long before any of the darker-color-based brands, like Tru-Colour, existed. But the economics weren’t there to keep it around so they discontinued it. (Walmart also attempted something similar and had the same result)
So…they’re in the clear, it was obviously economics, not racism, right?
Not so fast. Depending on what you consider racism, it still took them 84 years to do it, which is a LONG time. Sure, they’ve offered clear bandages since the 50’s as the answer for those with darker skin. But if there was additional marketing or research around POC (people of color), the design group was not made aware of it, at least while I was there. That doesn’t speak well of the marketing team nor for myself. But there are other more hidden factors at play here, too:
- The success of a cheap, commodified, utilitarian products like bandages or mouthwash or aspirin are heavily influenced by distribution and shelf space. Every inch on a shelf represents revenue for a retailer (like Target, Walgreens, etc.) and they know exactly how every product on every shelf performs at all times. So when a product isn’t selling well, they will drop it and replace it with something else, often a competing brand. And brands can’t force retailers to continue distributing products that aren’t selling no matter how strongly they believe in themselves.
- Speaking of retailers, a product’s location in the store can also have a substantial impact on sales. Many retailers have segregated shelves or sections aimed specifically at POC consumers, like black skin and hair products, separating them from the same products aimed at the white populace. This significantly affects shopper behavior and may reduce product awareness resulting in lower sales.
- Product offering and its accompanying (inevitably regional) distribution is extremely complicated. Let’s say BAND-AID decided on 4 shades of brown. So, what’s the offering? A single carton with 40 bandages, 10 of each shade? If your family is a single shade, you’re looking at throwing away 3/4 of its contents. Not a strong approach. Okay, how about 4 different cartons, each one representing a different shade? Great, no waste. But now you have a shelf space problem. Is a retailer going to take up four valuable slots to cover all four shades? Or is one enough so they can keep three other more high-volume products in the other slots? How do they choose which shades? Do they assess the make-up of the neighborhood? That’s a decision large retailers are not likely to entertain.
Noting these complexities isn’t a justification, rather they highlight the struggle of our society to balance profit-seeking capitalism and our cultural morals. Is a company ethically obligated to do the right thing socially even if it means financial loss? It used to be that only people had opinions, not brands. But as Simon Sinek, noted brand expert and author, says, “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it,” and now more than ever we are doing business with brands that align with our beliefs.
Committing to make the product is great, it gets the public on board, it gives breathing room, and it really is the right thing to do. But that’s branding, that’s the easy part. Solving the merchandising, the supply chain, the retailer challenges, and becoming profitable, that’s the hard part. But it is only in addressing the hard part that anything will actually change. When we post quotes, retweet memes, publicly declare our support for POC we are merely branding our own selves, and if not combined with THE HARD PART then that’s all we will have accomplished, promoting our personal brand.
So, what is OUR hard part?
As consumers we must not only raise our voices but vote with our feet. We should not only be more aware of our purchase options, but support them with our purchase decisions. Those of us who influence brands must seek the voices of the overlooked and not just listen to them, but believe them. Not just include them, but empower them. If this means we lose some of our influence, some of our control, some of our conveniences, that’s why they call it “hard.” It is in fact true that in the greatest challenges lie the greatest opportunities for all of us.