A few weeks ago, we explored the two sides of Brand Death. In the first, Sudden Brand Death, media exposure fans the flames and a company’s only recourse is swift, corrective action and strong public relations, which is what save the Tylenol brand back in 1982. Enron, Firestone, the cases of Sudden Brand Death aren’t numerous, but they are extremely memorable.
Unfortunately, the second side of Brand Death is much less visible and hard to identify. Slow Brand Death could be caused by management inattention, lack of focus, overall neglect, misunderstanding or incompetence, but the signs are there if you look.
1. Decreased customer loyalty: If your brands are showing signs of losing loyal customers, you may be suffering from the early onset of Slow Brand Death.
2. Lack of differentiation/distinction: If you are noticing that your competitors are looking more and more like you and that you are hearing the dreaded “c-word” (“commodity”) in management meetings and discussion, commoditization may be attacking your category and your brand.
3. Increased price sensitivity or declining price: If you find that you are not able to command a price premium with your target customers and that you are experiencing more price sensitivity, you may be seeing the first sign of Slow Brand Death.
4. Lack of internal alignment with the brand promise: If your employees aren’t clear about the promise your brand is making in the marketplace, how do you expect the customer to be clear about it? If your company is not set up to deliver on the brand promise, your brand-customer encounters may vary to the point of eroding your brand strength – or Slow Brand Death.
Overall market confusion will lead to Slow Brand Death. The very culture of your company may be leading your brands to continually erode and weaken by a lack of commitment to maintaining strong values – and over-emphasizing short-term results over long-term success. However, while the rapid virulence of Sudden Brand Death may limit your options, thankfully, that is not the case with Slow Brand Death.
Here you have time. Perhaps not as much time as you would like, but at least the media isn’t breathing down your neck publicizing every step and miss-step you take. Clear, decisive management action can stop and correct Slow Brand Death. Here is the process you should undertake:
1. Get the buy-in of executives: The easiest way to get top management to buy into branding as an important strategic business function is to make sure that they understand the brand’s connection to the bottom line, and the impact of the Slow Brand Death symptoms on that bottom line.. Now, everybody in business “knows” that strong brands deliver profits. But I would venture that very few business people could explain exactly how that happens in financial terms. Marketers must build the case for branding investment by educating management about the links of a well-defined brand, consistently delivered, to:
• customer loyalty and its volume benefits and even willingness to pay a premium
• lowered cost of sales and improved operational efficiency
• higher revenue and more predictable cash flow
• enhanced shareholder value
Once top management understands that improving brand performance will end up making money for the company, you will have their buy-in.
2. Understand the current situation: Once you have the support of top management, you need to complete a thorough brand assessment. Your goal is to understand where your brand is now and where your competitors’ brands are, in the hearts and minds of the market. Additionally, you need to assess trends and emerging markets to predict how your brand – and your competitors’ brands – will be impacted in the future. Finally, you need to understand how your brand is perceived internally as well as externally, and what gaps there might be between those two perceptions. Leaving out any of these views could give you a misleading picture of your brand in the marketplace.
3. Define the desired brand: Based on the brand assessment, you should have a good idea of market gaps your brand can credibly fill, based on what the market is willing to let your brand do and where the market is going. From this, develop a complete definition of your brand of the future – say five years out. This future or desired brand becomes your goal set. All of your brand actions should be evaluated on their ability to move your brand into the desired space.
4. Identify the brand drivers: The brand assessment will help you understand which brand contact-points or functions are having the most impact in creating customers’ brand perceptions. Each brand will have different drivers. For an automobile, it may be the actual test drive and driving experience. For a bank it may be the ATM or the voice response unit that directs you to different functions within the organization. Be sure that you look to identify the brand drivers for each of the important brand audiences. One target market’s drivers may differ from another’s or your strategic partners may have a different set of brand drivers than your customers.
5. Align internally to deliver the brand promise: When the desired brand position is determined and defined, many companies move to communicate to the marketplace. This is premature, as it is not yet certain whether your organization can consistently deliver on the brand promise you want to make. Take the time to evaluate your organization’s readiness and ability to deliver the brand promise. You may find that you will need to take some action to bring your company into alignment with the brand. At a minimum, you will need to communicate the new brand promise when your company is ready and able to understand it and use it in their day-to-day jobs. Organizational development, training, and internal communications among others are important elements in achieving this capability.
6. Communicate the brand externally: With all of the other steps in place, you can now begin communicating the new brand externally. But before doing this, take the time to evaluate your key audiences for brand communications. What are the most compelling messages that you need to send each audience? Document these messages and make sure you use them consistently in your communications.
7. Measure and monitor: No time to rest on your laurels – the key to avoiding Brand Death is to know what’s going on in the marketplace. There are three factors working on your brand: you, your competitors, and your target audiences. Put in place a measurement system (internal and external) to monitor the critical brand contact points and brand perceptions to make sure that you are not straying from your plan and that you are progressing as anticipated toward your future brand.
Once you have set up a comprehensive brand process throughout the company, you should continually revisit all of the steps to make sure that you are meeting your brand goals and objectives.
Brand Death is costly and avoidable. The decision to kill a brand is the decision to throw away a corporate asset, similar to jettisoning real estate or other capital assets. Management can and should manage their brands as the valuable corporate assets they are. If the brand has any remaining equity at all, the cost of brand improvement is far less than the cost of creating a new brand. On-going monitoring and measuring of brand vitality is critical to successfully manage the brand and ensure that the brand remains viable in the marketplace.
Debra S. Semans, a veteran marketing researcher and nationally recognized expert on brand research, brand positioning and strategy, is senior vice president for Atlanta marketing research company, Polaris Marketing Research, Inc. She has overall responsibility for Polaris’ client relationships and project satisfaction. Semans also has responsibility for Polaris’ marketing efforts, as well as building strategic alliances for project support services.
Semans is an instructor in marketing management, internal branding and non-profit marketing for the American Marketing Association and has been a featured speaker at the Georgia Center for Non Profits, CityCares Leadership Conference, the Ohio Parks and Recreation Association Conference, International Association of Business Communicators’ conferences in Dallas and Atlanta conferences and various conferences for the International Quality and Productivity Center. She has published articles in Financial Services Marketing, Marketing Management, Marketing News and on marketingpower.com. Semans holds a master’s of business administration from Georgia State University and a bachelor’s degree from State University of New York in Oswego, N.Y.