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  • Writer's pictureAlexandre Richard

Make diarrhea great again

Updated: Apr 7, 2019

Almost 100 years after its establishment, the P&G OTC brand for all-round stomach pain relief still never ceases to amaze me. It is counter-current on so many levels (category codes, consumer needs, product benefit, global cultural trends) that it makes it oddly fascinating. Additionally, it is not a stand-alone challenger brand: it's a century-old market leader in the US, and #1 doctor recommended brand in category domestically.

We're looking here at the 2018 packaging revamp. A new font, trading a more bubbly look & feel for a vintage-looking font strongly resonating with Gen Z nowadays. A bolder reminder on cap that PB tackles everything at once. And an even yummier look. None of the above really altering the original character or positioning of the brand. Let's take a closer look at its oddity, and what ironically makes it so successful.

Stomach related problems are very varied, and they notably include the 5 symptoms listed on the pack on this all-rounder: nausea, heartburns, indigestion, upset stomach, and diarrhea. They can come in isolation, duo, or the full package if you're in luck. All depending on individuals, and context.

What's worth highlighting upfront is sufferers' mindset for stomach issues:

  • A deep and sometimes incapacitating pain that evolves in waves that you can't anticipate

  • A shameful trouble that comes with a strong stigma (as opposed to a cough)

  • A pain that can't act as a natural call for empathy for symptoms don't show to others

When turning to solutions, sufferers seek:

  • Immediate action blocking the symptoms

  • Prompt recovery

  • From a lifestyle perspective, the ability to be active again (working, moving, interacting with others)

This is why all other players in category leverage codes that cue efficiency (clock icons, claims on speed), seriousness (medical codes: clinical white or colors that are deep without being too dark: blue or green; flat lines, angular shapes; no frivolity on pack), and concern (dramatization of the pain). And most importantly: a non-showy pack, because the whole world doesn't need to know you have diarrhea.

Pepto-Bismol's pack is the Candy Crush of OTC. Extremely saturated colors. Dripping pink liquid. A font, visuals and 3D effects that emphasize volume (in a context where your stomach is... swollen). Its execution is very reminiscent of that of toys, candies, ice creams, equipment meant to stimulate toddlers. And it looks terribly tempting (in a very sugary and regressive way). Pepto-Bismol's pack essentially speaks to gluttony and carelessness (see other SKUs: gums, and cherry flavors).

A call to gluttony reflected in their ads

Now, Pepto-Bismol is not a hit everywhere. It is a hit in the US. A culture whereby one doesn't get easily defeated and welcomes challenge with excitement and sees it as an opportunity (re full-on optimism and liveliness on pack). A country that tends to embrace excess, notably when it comes to hedonism, including food. As subtly cued by the dripping pink gel on pack, quantities are not limited (symbolically) - as opposed to competitors proposing micro-doses.

Where exported, the brand is likely to attract a typology of more carefree users who don't want to consider themselves sick. Domestically: one could argue Pepto-Bismol is one embodiment of the American dream, on steroids: no boundaries, unshakable belief in yourself and future outcomes, and enjoyment all the way!

Alexandre RICHARD

Freelance Strategist: Brands + People + Culture

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