Meet Peter Arnell, Madison Avenue's Dumbest Genius

Peter Arnell
Peter Arnell

Correction: In this article Peter Arnell, chairman of the Arnell Group, was incorrectly credited with overseeing a 2009 brand campaign for Gatorade. In fact, while Arnell Group was behind the makeovers of two other PepsiCo brands last year, Pepsi and Tropicana, the Gatorade campaign was the work of another agency, TBWA/Chiat/Day Los Angeles. DailyFinance regrets the error.

PepsiCo's (PEP) ill-advised makeover of its Tropicana orange juice brand was one of the major marketing disasters of the past decade. But it was a success in one way: It managed to deflect attention from the company's almost equally boneheaded rebranding of Gatorade. For a time, anyway.

In early 2009, just as Tropicana was discarding its familiar packaging in favor of a new look consumers hated, Gatorade was rechristening itself as, simply, G. The result: a drop in sales of 15%, necessitating a fresh repositioning of the brand: The sports drink will now come in two varieties, one for athletes and one for regular folks, according to The New York Times.

Both rethinks The Tropicana campaign was the work of Peter Arnell, a Madison Avenue maven who prefers to speak and work in the most grandiose possible fashion. Arnell fancies himself less an adman than a philosopher-artist whose Medici-like patrons are the giant corporations that have paid him millions over the years to craft their campaigns: McDonald's (MCD), Banana Republic, Donna Karan.

A Giant in His Own Mind

I interviewed Arnell at his office in 2004. Never in the years before or since have I met a person so impressed with his own talents. That's not very nice to say, I know, but bear in mind we're talking about someone with a reputation for hitting his employees and making them do push-ups as punishment.

Some of his work has been undeniably brilliant, like the iconic DKNY logo containing the Manhattan skyline. But lately, it seems as though either that well has run dry or recession-stressed consumers have become more skeptical of high-concept ad pitches. When a document Arnell produced justifying his new Pepsi logo in terms of its grounding in Eastern mysticism and classical geometry was leaked to the public, it made him out of touch with his time rather than ahead of it.

The latest marketer to entrust its brand to Arnell is Belvedere vodka. Arnell's bright idea was to encourage consumers to refer to it by the nickname "Belve," presumably because it's that extra syllable that's been preventing tongue-tied bar patrons from ordering it over, say, Smirnoff or Ketel. Something tells me this will not be the campaign that turns Arnell's losing streak around.

Originally published