Why brands fail
A long, long time ago in a galaxy far away, products were responsible for the fate of a company. When a company noticed that its sales were flagging, it would come to one conclusion: its product was starting to fail. Now things have changed. Companies don’t blame the product, they blame the brand.
It isn’t the physical item sitting on the shop shelf at fault, but rather what that item represents, what it conjures up in the buyer’s mind. This shift in thinking, from product-blame to brand-blame, is therefore related to the way buyer behaviour has changed. ‘Today most products are bought, not sold,’ write Al and Laura Ries in The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding. ‘Branding “presells” the product or service to the user. Branding is simply a more efficient way to sell things.’
Although this is true, this new focus means that perfectly good products can fail as a result of bad branding. So while branding raises the rewards, it also heightens the risks. Scott Bedbury, Starbucks’ former vice-president of marketing, controversially admitted that ‘consumers don’t truly believe there’s a huge difference between products,’ which means brands have to establish ‘emotional ties’ with their customers. However, emotions aren’t to be messed with. Once a brand has created that necessary bond, it has to handle it with care. One step out of line and the customer may not be willing to forgive.
This is ultimately why all brands fail. Something happens to break the bond between the customer and the brand. This is not always the fault of the company, as some things really are beyond their immediate control (global recession, technological advances, international disasters etc). However, more often than not, when brands struggle or fail it is usually down to a distorted perception of either the brand, the competition or the market. This altered view is a result of one of the following seven deadly sins of branding:
For old brands, as for old people, memory becomes an increasing issue. When a brand forgets what it is supposed to stand for, it runs into trouble. The most obvious case of brand amnesia occurs when a venerable, long-standing brand tries to create a radical new identity, such as when Coca-Cola tried to replace its original formula with New Coke. The results were disastrous.
Brands sometimes develop a tendency for over-estimating their own importance, and their own capability. This is evident when a brand believes it can support a market single-handedly, as Polaroid did with the instant photography market. It is also apparent when a brand enters a new market for which it is clearly ill-suited, such as Harley Davidson trying to sell perfume.
Egotism can lead to megalomania. When this happens, brands want to take over the world by expanding into every product category imaginable. Some, such as Virgin, get away with it. Most lesser brands, however, do not.
‘Human kind cannot bear very much reality,’ wrote T S Eliot. Neither can brands. Indeed, some brands see the whole marketing process as an act of covering up the reality of their product. In extreme cases, the trend towards brand fiction can lead to downright lies. For example, in an attempt to promote the film A Knight’s Tale one Sony marketing executive invented a critic, and a suitable quote, to put onto the promotional poster. In an age where markets are increasingly connected, via the Internet and other technologies, consumers can no longer be deceived.
Some companies get bored with their own brands. You can see this happening to products which have been on the shelves for many years, collecting dust. When brand fatigue sets in creativity suffers, and so do sales.
This is the opposite of brand ego and is most likely to occur when a brand faces increased competition. Typical symptoms include: a tendency to file lawsuits against rival companies, a willingness to reinvent the brand every six months, and a longing to imitate competitors.
When a market radically evolves, the brands associated with it risk becoming irrelevant and obsolete. Brand managers must strive to maintain relevance by staying ahead of the category, as Kodak is trying to do with digital photography.