Remember why consumers buy your product in the first place.

For the third time in two years, there’s a new look to Sun Chips packaging on the shelves of Martin’s, Kroger’s and other Richmond supermarkets. And therein lies an important lesson for advertisers, green or otherwise.

First, a big yawn

In late 2009, the division of Frito Lay went on television to introduce their new, biodegradable packaging. While this was a cause of great excitement for environmentalists and for the lab researchers who spent years and millions of dollars developing snack-product bags that could eventually rot, compostability was a big yawn to consumers in general, only 30% of whom do any sort of composting and virtually 100% of whom buy food products for what’s inside the packaging, not the packaging itself.

But the yawn was shortly followed by something much worse.

Then, a big stink

As Sun Chips buyers opened the new bags, they discovered something really annoying: It turned out that the new, biodegradable bags were noisy – so noisy, in fact, that their crinkling practically drowned out the sound of the Sun Chips crunching as people chewed them.

To say consumers didn’t like that would be a gross understatement. They blanketed YouTube with mocking videos and dropped the brand like a hot potato. So on October 5, 2010, after a 10% drop in sales, the brand dropped its biodegradable packaging, scrapping some 52 million bags in the process.

Finally, a big lesson

Now, Sun Chips biodegradable packing is back, but with two big differences.

First, Frito Lay learned how to make the bags quieter. Second, they learned to shut up about things that don’t matter to consumers and to emphasize things that do.

They replaced huge type shouting “The world’s first compostable snack chip bag”  across the front with a 90% smaller “100% Compostable: Made With Renewable Materials” in the upper right-hand corner. And on the back, in even smaller type, they own up to the fact that the bags degrade in industrial composting facilities, not in your own backyard. They also replaced the main message, which became, “Made with All Natural Ingredients – No MSG, No Preservatives – No Artificial Flavors – Great Multigrain Taste.”

In others words, since far more people care about natural ingredients than about composting – and equate the absence of artificial ingredients, etc., with health and better taste – they started talking to their customers and stopped talking to themselves and doctrinaire environmentalists.

Lessons for advertisers

The lessons that Sun Chips learned apply to all advertisers as well – not just “green” ones:

  1. Always remember that consumers buy products for specifically selfish reasons, not vague abstractions like “saving the planet.” Maybe if everybody bought Sun Chips in compostable bags instead of Frito Lay’s other chips in environmentally incorrect packages, that might improve the environment, but nobody seriously believes that one bag will make all that much difference.
  2. Never forget that people buy products for the products themselves, not for the packaging.
  3. Before you offer some sort of side benefit, make sure it’s one that people actually care about or practice.
  4. Just because you’ve spent lots of time and money to develop a product feature, don’t assume it will automatically matter to anyone. (Remember the old Richmond expression about what you make when you assume.)
  5. Think like your customers. Find out what’s important to them and build it into both your product and your advertising.

It cost Sun Chips seven months and millions of dollars to learn these lessons. Here’s hoping you profit from them for free.