Outside-in change is prompted by shifts beyond the immediate control of the brand. Those prompts could be competitive, reputational or sectoral. They could manifest in symptoms as varied as a drop in credibility, a slump in market share or a shift in profitability within a sector as a whole. Whatever the signal, these declines prompt a brand to make sometimes radical changes in a quest to re-set how it is valued by consumers and respected by rivals.
One or more of four outs usually apply:
- You have been outpaced – you’re not keeping with up the changes in consumer buying patterns, expectations and/or attitudes. You need to shorten your reaction and/or development times or risk being left behind.
- You have been outsmarted – your competitors have done something clever – an innovation or an improvement – that has completely changed how they compete. Consumers have welcomed the change. Now you must react.
- You have been outshone – someone else has stolen the eye of buyers, and they’ve shifted their attention and their wallets. Chances are your profile and/or your story, or rather the lack of them, are to blame. You need to find new ways to be interesting or risk further relegation.
- You have outraged – you did something stupid or failed to do something right, and now people are not happy with you. You need to do two things simultaneously: arrest the public damage; and address the internal controls that allowed whatever happened to happen.
In any of these circumstances, the brand is primarily looking for ways to stem losses and then to regroup and counter-attack. Both steps are important.
It’s critical to understand how you got into the position you are in. The overarching question is brutally direct, but critically important: “Why and where have we failed?” Management generally squirm at history lessons I’ve found – afraid they’ll turn into a witch-hunt – but unless the reasons for your decline are known and the pace of decline understood, it’s very difficult to know what to address in the marketplace and the speed at which that change must occur. If you don’t know, you will find yourselves simply throwing tactics at your competitors in increasingly desperate attempts to slow the damage.
This really thoughtful post by Associate Professor Rob Cross of the University of Virginia on building valuable networks caught my eye today. Specifically, I was drawn to the final paragraph:
If we are circulating too much with people we have known forever or people who themselves are all spending time in the same meetings and interactions, then we are not getting the performance impact…The magic lies in the new ideas and perspectives that can come from connections into different networks.
The same point applies in many ways to the networks that brands build with their customers. If they are just selling the same goods, or even new goods, to the same community, then there is no contagion – no reason for the brand to spread interest and influence beyond those who already know it.
A circle can quickly become a wall.
The opportunity for brands is to introduce new ideas into their networks and marketing that ‘stretch’ those who know the brand well, but also serve to introduce and absorb new followers beyond the brand’s established catchments. In other words, brands should be looking to continually expand their outreach, while remaining true to a core and unmoving purpose. The last point of familiarity should be the launch point for new ventures and approaches. And just as importantly, brands should make sure they follow the relationship and affinity trails, not just the structure trails.
Unable to shake-off the moniker Whole Pay Check and with lower-priced stores like Trader Joe’s and Sprouts eating into its share, Whole Foods has decided enough is enough and is launching a new chain of stores with lower-priced products it’s calling 365 by Whole Foods Market—the 365 name coming from its own-label brand whose products will feature heavily in its product offering. By making this move, Whole Foods is taking a road well traveled by equally frustrated premium brands but one that rarely leads to salvation.
Back in the 00s, for example, many legacy air carriers took this route, hoping that they would win back customers against lower-priced competitors like Frontier, Jet Blue and Southwest. It didn’t work. Typical of the initiatives, United launched Ted in 2003 primarily to compete for vacation passengers headed out of its Denver hub. The launch was supported by marketing that tried to personify Ted and the aircraft were configured with Tedevision screens and TedTune music stations. Ted lasted for five years but was discontinued in 2008, a victim of spiking fuel prices and management preference for focusing on the core business. Even the best of these initiatives, Delta’s Song, didn’t make it. In terms of branded effort, this was more than just a new paint job. The brand had a clear target, (hip, style-conscious professional women), cheerful branding and full marketing support. Yet, despite successfully building up passengers and revenue, Song lasted just three years as Delta management decided to focus on the core business.
And that’s often the problem. Faced with competitors offering lower prices and eating into their sales, companies have to do something. Not wanting to reduce the profitability of their core business, they launch fighter brands to go out there and sock it to these upstarts. But, after an initial wave of enthusiasm and support, these initiatives tend to run out of steam and fail.
I admit it – I called them for dead. I thought Blackberry was gone. I think a lot of us did. But if this article in AdAge is more than just hype on the part of the company and its ad agency, perhaps that call was premature. I am still cautious about whether Blackberry is growing or simply not fading, but the great news for brands that seem to be in a death spiral is that you can pull out, or at least halt the decline, if you’re prepared to make the changes needed. So what is Blackberry doing that others could learn from?
First of all – they shifted back to the audience they know and where they built their reputation. Refocusing on B2B from the trendy, shiny-object world of consumer tech is a drive back to the industry they know and that they are known in. The fish is back in the water. Re-identifying, re-finding and then re-engaging with the audience you have strayed from is fundamental.
Secondly – they worked the psychographics of that audience hard. Knowing that business is a serious matter, Blackberry have positioned their brand as a serious business tool with cornerstone strengths in security and privacy. In so doing, they’ve looked to de-risk the decision to stay with/return to their technology. Having re-engaged the people who used to love your brand, it’s critical to identify how their mindsets and priorities have changed in the interim. Fortunately for Blackberry, the needs for security and privacy have only increased in that time.
Thirdly – they shifted their leadership team, presumably to ensure that the actions of the business would better mirror the assertions of the brand in terms of customer-centricity. Obvious, yes – but worth remembering that brand alone won’t save a brand.
It is perhaps the ultimate exit strategy – a company with a closing date. This article in the NY Times talks about non profit organizations such as Malaria No More and Out2Play that have decided their work is done. They’re closing because they have accomplished what they set out to do.
Now imagine doing that with a brand. Setting a date by which you would have achieved set business and social goals along with an agreed return on capital – and ending it there. Too radical? My friend Sam Kebbell set up his architectural practice using that exact premise – a company that would last 50 years. And brand strategist Dan Herman has already successfully proposed just such an idea with his concept of “short-term brands”: brands that focus excitement and buyer loyalty because they are built not to last.
Funny isn’t it how we all acknowledge the pace of change, and how much consumers crave the new, and yet we expect brands to just keep running. Perhaps that’s why they go stale. They need continuing infusions of energy, and as Dr. Herman suggests one way to do that is to give them start and end dates, to effectively produce brands that are conceived, brought to market and ultimately concluded as limited editions.
What would you do with your brand if it only had four years to run? You’d make faster decisions, you’d be very, very focused on producing brands with enormous crave factor, you’d look for creative ways to feed that excitement by adding value without adding cost and you’d be very aware of your performance at any given point in time.