Turning Foul Flavors Into Sweet Success

For most outfits, it's marketing 101: In order to seduce buyers, a company must make its products look attractive, sensual even, and delicious. But some brands have taken the opposite approach -- proudly touting the foul, harsh flavors of their wares, they have built a consumer base by convincing customers that the road to health and happiness is often paved with yucky flavors.

Whether the ultimate goal is to prove a medicine's strength, dare consumers to try something different, or simply appeal to those with a taste for tart, like the Sour Patch Kids, these contrarian companies have shown that sometimes success can be found in unlikely places. Here are three of our all-time favorite funky-taste peddlers.

Bitter Medicine: Buckley's Cough Syrup

Some manufacturers of health and hygiene products -- Listerine, for one -- pride themselves on their harsh flavor, suggesting that an assault on the taste buds translates into a more effective product. But while Listerine's exploding mouth ads are impressive, they're nothing compared with the bad taste advertising onslaught of Buckley's cough syrup, a notoriously foul tasting brew that has haunted the dreams of Canadian schoolchildren since 1919. Made with a wide range of harsh, unpleasant flavors -- including camphor, pine needle oil and tincture of capsicum (purified hot pepper extract) -- Buckley's is a brutal assault upon the tongue, only slightly mitigated by the fact that many of its users are congested and thus protected from the vile taste.

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For most of its history, Buckley's downplayed its taste, but in the mid-1980's, the company embraced its foul flavor. Their first move was to adopt a new tagline, "It tastes awful. And it works," but the company soon launched a campaign that tickled the funny bone even as it pushed a product that tortured the taste buds. In a series of ads, company owner Frank Buckley touted the truly terrible flavor of the syrup, noting that it was "Not new. Not improved," "Feared by more people than ever before," and that "People swear by it. And at it." The campaign was a huge success: in addition to winning dozens of advertising awards, it gave a 10% boost to Buckley's sales in Canada.

Jay S. Rosenberg, managing partner of PLM Worldwide, notes that Buckley's campaign may appear informal, but is actually a deliberate, thoughtful strategy. "Buckley's isn't messing around," he points out, "They've spent a lot of money and they know that this works." By highlighting the bad flavor of the cough syrup, Buckley's effectively turns a negative into a positive. As Rosenberg puts it, "The customers may not like it, but they know it works."

In 2003, Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis bought Buckley's for an undisclosed amount, but Frank Buckley is still a spokesman for the company, and its ads still highlight the syrup's horrifying flavor. In 2007 and 2009, it launched "Buckley's face" viral campaigns that encouraged users to show the expressions that they make when drinking the foul brew. While the recipe still involves the herbal blend that made it famous, the company has also added dextromethorphan (DM), a common anti-cough ingredient. And though the new ingredient may improve the effectiveness of the wicked syrup, an ad campaign admitted that "Unfortunately, adding DM doesn't make it taste any better."

"Eating Sour Patch Kids Until Your Tongue Starts to Bleed"

At first blush, coating gummy Swedish fish with sugar and a mix of acids may seem like a really bad idea. After all, candies are supposed to be delicious, and the sour sugar compound yields a harsh, nasty taste that -- if eaten in enough quantity -- can inflict chemical burns on the tongue and sides of the mouth. Yet Sour Patch Kids, developed in the 1970's by Canadian Frank Galatolie, are extremely popular; in fact, hundreds of fans of the candy gather on the internet and around Facebook pages like "Eating Sour Patch Kids Until Your Tongue Starts to Bleed" to discuss the mingled love and pain that they feel for the bittersweet morsels.

In a series of commercials, Sour Patch kids have played up the strange mix of attraction and repulsion, bitterness and bounty that the candies embody. In one ad, a sour patch kid holds a pigeon over a kid's head until it poops, then fist-bumps its poor victim. In another, one of the gummy candies pelts a kid with eggs, then hugs his leg. The combination of love and hate is slightly disturbing. Yet for all of that, the candies remain one of Cadbury PLC' top-selling brands, and have inspired a host of imitators and spin-offs, including sour warheads, sour Skittles, sour Gummi Tape, and even Sour Patch Kid Slurpees.

Doug Van Aman, president of Van Aman Communications, suggests that the harsh flavor of Sour Patch Kids taps into a vein of childish competition: "If you're a Sour Patch afficionado, the goal is to get your friends to try it. It's all about being the one who can hack it." The Sour Patch commercials, with their impish candy characters, play into this interpretation. Featuring egg fights, toppling human pyramids, and other practical jokes, the ads suggest a puckish perspective of life on the edge. As Van Aman puts it, "There's a bit of attractive child dare-devilishness mixed in with the marketing. It's a big playful dare."

Jeppson's Malort: "Strong, Sharp Taste is Not for Everyone."

In business for over eighty years, Jeppson's Malort may well be the harshest-tasting liquor currently on the American market. An amber-colored potion flavored with wormwood, its flavor is intensely, unrelentingly bitter. But rather than downplay the brutal bite of the brew, entrepreneur George Brode -- who bought the brand in the 1930's -- chose to emphasize it: on every bottle, he printed a dire warning:

"Most first-time drinkers of Jeppson Malort reject our liquor. Its strong, sharp taste is not for everyone. Our liquor is rugged and unrelenting (even brutal) to the palate. During almost 60 years of American distribution, we found only 1 out of 49 men will drink Jeppson Malort."

It isn't clear if the warning helped sales but Malort has somehow stayed in business for over seventy years. Patricia Gabelick, the current owner, runs the company out of her Chicago-area condominium, and admits that it is a "niche liquor," only selling "1,000 to 1,200 cases per year." That doesn't leave a lot of room in the budget for marketing and advertising; in fact, even the classic Malort sales pitch has been taken off the bottles because of the cost of printing.

Yet Malort seems to be experiencing a renaissance. The brew, which was originally marketed to Swedish immigrants in Chicago, has become a regional delicacy, catching the interest of bartenders, cutting-edge hipsters, and proud Chicagoans. Whether a hazing ritual for young men, an intriguing challenge for mixologists, or just a way to show city pride, the bitter taste has become part of the Windy City's mythology.

Although Malort is unavailable outside of Chicago, its fan base has begun to extend across the country. New York-based author and comedian John Hodgman has become an unpaid pitchman for the brand, serving it at his performances. With Binny's and other Chicagoland liquor retailers making it possible for consumers across the country to order a bottle, it seems only a matter of time before Malort finds its place in the American taste pantheon.

In the meantime, Gabelick notes that Malort has found its place among a new generation of immigrants: in Chicago's Hispanic community, many adherents regard it as a rite of passage. This would undoubtedly give Brode a smile: Gabelick says that the original intention of his warning was to issue a challenge to drinkers: "It was like 'are you man enough to drink this bitter, brusque liquor?'"
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