An early branding mistake by duPont

In the early 1960’s, I was a participant in one of the classic branding failures of the era. No, not Edsel. Not nearly as glamorous or as expensive as that one, but equally embarrassing to the brand owner, duPont.

The brand was Telar, the never-drain anti-freeze. I was an assistant account exec on that account while at BBDO. Here’s the story.

For many years the sale of anti-freeze was falling. Why? Because the “new and improved” anti-freezes of the day, and especially the Prestone brand, kept getting better. People discovered they needn’t drain their anti-freeze every spring even though the “experts” and the anti-freeze companies admonished everyone to do so unless they wanted their radiators to rust out.

Dow Chemical developed a new product they called Dowguard, a full-fill anti-freeze. It contained distilled, corrosion-retarding water and anti-freeze mix. Folks had to completely drain their cooling systems and fill it completely with Dowguard and they were told they wouldn’t ever need to drain and refill their cooling systems again.

This worried duPont, and so they developed and introduced Telar.

Now they’d done some research concerning sales of anti-freeze. They found that about 35-percent of respondents did not drain their anti-freeze annually. Another 30-percent drained their own.

Remember, this was circa 1960. Discount stores were just becoming popular. This was a trend anticipating Pep Boys, Checker and NAPA toward do-it-yourself auto servicing.   “Traditional” outlets like service stations, garages and auto dealerships were feeling the pinch.

duPont had a strong relationship with the auto servicing industry. Their entire distribution system for all their automotive products was as strong as any in the industry. Their relationships were very tight and DuPont thought the best way to market Telar was through this strong network and not through discounters and chains. So they only sold through their traditional chain and advertised as such, both to consumers and to the trade. And to make the deal even juicier for dealers, DuPont priced Telar at about 30-percent higher than their regular Zerex anti-freeze.

But dealers, knowing this was a “never-drain” product, feared they would lose sales (especially from the 35-percent who were still visiting their facilities to have radiators drained yearly). So they weren’t enthusiastic partners, stocking only token amounts of Telar, not promoting it and only installing it if customers asked them to.

Consumers who came in asking about Telar (the ones who rely on their mechanic’s advice) were not getting really enthusiastic endorsements. Thus, because of no dealer support and a product that flew in the face of many years of tradition (drain every year), Telar failed.

What duPont  had not considered were industry trends and consumer behavior. There was some arrogance involved. Mighty duPont, management thought, could buck the trends toward discounters and maintain a viable network of servicing dealers. Based on past innovations, they believed consumers would embrace any new product from the duPont labs, even if priced above comparable performing products.

The moral: be sure to scan and interpret industry trends and consumer behavior before branding new products.

That is why I encourage branders to build a branding platform with one of those planks being industry/product category trends, and another being complete descriptions of market segments and supply chain participants, and the factors that motivate members of those groups.

Quite often these planks are overlooked by smaller organizations because of research costs and the time it takes to gather critical information.

But I believe it’s just as essential to the success of a brand as positioning the product or creating the brand’s identity.

Martin Jelsema

3 thoughts on “An early branding mistake by duPont

  1. Martin,

    What a great story. Thanks for sharing it. I do have a few questions however.

    One: Why did duPont not realize that the people (i.e. the garage owners that would lose business because it is a one time service) they wanted to support their product, would ultimately not because it was not good for their business? It would seem even the most rudimentary marketing research would have shown a negative response by the service dealers.

    Two: Was this really a branding mistake or simply a market research mistake (or interpretation there of) The product idea was great, the problem seemed to centered around using the proper consumer outlet. Consumers would love it, the people who DuPont wanted to sell it, did not. That sounds like supply chain error.

    In the end this really sounds like a product ahead of its time. Consumers of the time would desire the product but there was not viable outlet to get it into their hands.

    Thanks for the article



    Here’s my response to the questions in your comment. First, even the scientists and marketers at duPont wear rose-colored glasses. They did indeed misinterpret the research, but not it’s conclusions as much as the passion of the dealer responses. They were confident they could persuade dealers of the benefit and that duPont was acting in their behalf.

    Yes, this was a research interpretation error, but the brand was based on that research. BBDO, though not naming the product, was instumental in naming and attaching the product category to the product – “the never-drain anti-freeze”. We also contributed to package design as well. All that was done with only the ultimate consumer in mind and no thought at all given to the dealer. This did not bode well because duPont really “rubbed dealer’s noses’ in the idea they would lose business. A brand needs to be of value to all those constituancies that will affect the sales and success of a product or service. Ignoring dealers in the brand arena resulted in a failed brand.

    Martin Jelsema

  2. I used Telar & know that it worked great. What you forgot to say was that it was colored red & would turn yrllow if you had a compression leak into the coolant. Of coarse used car salesmen didnt like this, because cars could go mounths before that type of leak would show up as a problem.

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