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Brand Innovation

The Role Of Brand Recognition In Innovation

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The Role Of Brand Recognition In Innovation

Brands gain strength from the associations they build with consumers. But those same associations can work against brands when they look to introduce ideas that go too far beyond what consumers expect.

Professor Kyle Murray of the University of Alberta says that the failure of Crystal Pepsi is a classic example of what happens when new products fail to align with the characteristics that consumers know. Launched in 1993, with much hoopla, Crystal Pepsi was a colorless soda that was expected to become a billion dollar brand. It was discontinued two years later, having failed to fire.

A key reason for that failure, explains Professor Murray, was that Pepsi simply never said why a drink people had come to expect to be a rich caramel color was suddenly clear. And that spooked buyers. Nor is Crystal Pepsi an isolated case. Each year, hundreds of thousands of products are introduced into the consumer packaged goods sector alone, and a huge number of them fail. Timing, competitiveness and lack of effective distribution can all play their part, but, says Murray, the expectations that come with brand recognition also have an important role.

“We tend to resist products that fall too far outside the familiar. As a result, even though companies are constantly innovating, people struggle to keep up with the many changes that innovation can bring … consumers tend to be curious when products are different from what they expect. However, when the new product is extremely incongruent with what consumers think is typical of the category, it creates anxiety.”

The Sweet Spot Between Curiosity And Anxiety

There’s the tension right there – finding the sweet spot between curiosity and anxiety. And getting that right is about ensuring that product developers are very clear about the core associations that come with the brand, and that are therefore indelible, and those that are more flexible, and therefore open to improvement and innovation. In the case of Crystal Pepsi, I’m sure that many consumers didn’t see how a clear drink that looked like water could be a cola. They literally didn’t recognize what they were being asked to buy.

Kyle Murray, Theodore Noseworthy and Fabrizio Di Muro concluded that where brands do look to introduce changes that fall outside that sweet spot, they also need to introduce some form of enabler to help consumers make sense of what is happening. For example, when Murray and his colleagues tested the Crystal Pepsi product recently, telling those prepared to taste that the cola was clear because it was made with spring water, they saw acceptance jump. “Our findings reveal how minor design or promotional changes can significantly improve evaluations when it helps consumers make sense of otherwise unappealing innovations.”

Linking Recognition And Innovation

Of course no brand should simply press ahead with lateral innovations and rely on design or promotion to engender acceptance. What Murray, Noseworthy and Di Muro’s findings do reinforce is that expectations can be changed if the explanation for the change fits with what consumers feel they ‘know’. And one way to do that is to marry an idea that consumers recognize, and that has its own associations, with the brand innovation in order to lift overall interest, acceptance and curiosity.

Getting that right is about:

  • leveraging the trust factors that consumers have with the brand itself;
  • using story to normalize new ideas; and
  • making the brand’s high-level intentions clear so that people can connect where the brand is going with the products it releases.

Too many brands rely on the novelty of brand extension or improvement to sell itself. What the work of Professor Murray and his team shows though is that buyers may say they embrace the new, but in reality innovation can work to a brand’s disadvantage. Just as no brand should innovate for its own sake, neither should it introduce changes that it simply expects consumers to change their attitudes around.

So the irony of innovation and indeed diversification is that if you want to move people to try new versions of your brand, you need to firmly embed what the core brand stands for. Brand recognition in that sense – knowing what a brand means to consumers in comparison to all the other options available to them – underpins the ability to successfully innovate. Without that sense of reassurance, shoppers just won’t pick it up.

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