10 things that break brands

10 things that break brands (and how to fix them)

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There’s a lot of things that brands keep doing that can turn their value south. By way of a checklist, these are the things I see happening far too often.

  1. Loss of trust – When brands display a lack of moral fortitude, either through what they do or what they choose not to do, consumers literally want nothing more to do with them, at least for a time. While trust revolves around behaviour, the range of behaviours that consumers find unacceptable has broadened to include not just misleading messaging but also the gamut of wider business and ethical issues. Increasingly I’m talking to brands about a concept I call “impeccable supply”. Tie your criteria for everything you do to the highest levels of transparency and timing. If things are happening that you wouldn’t want people to know about, beyond commercial sensitivity, that’s a trust issue waiting to happen. Address it, before buyers address you about it.
  2. Lack of interest – The day you stop(ped) being interesting is the day you start(ed) being unattractive. Brutal as that seems, brands must capture and then keep the attention of those who buy from them. Movement draws the eye. Same in markets. The brands that have momentum, that document and share their news, and that tie what they’re doing to changing needs, are the ones that often feel more relevant and more interesting. Building a socially skilled brand is about a lot more than having social media accounts. It’s about tuning your brand to the attention spans and areas of interest of your target market. Make things people desire. Then make that into news.
  3. Shiny bright object hunting – It’s tempting to bolt down every rabbit hole in search of Wonderland. But ideas, technologies and panacea come and go at an increasing rate these days. Trends should be read as just that – the current conversation points of a business community that is increasingly talkative. My view is that every brand needs to be aware of what’s currently fascinating, but that the decisions around what to chase, what to watch and what to ignore should be far more disciplined. The other critical distinction is between means and ends. Too often, the delineation between goals and ways is clouded by those who present an approach they favour as the way forward. In a business as abstract as brand can be, knowing what’s definite and what is ephemeral requires a very strong sense of self.
  4. Lack of purpose – Unless you come to work as a culture knowing what you seek to actively change in the market and in the wider world, there’s a huge temptation to chase things that consumers don’t care about or simply to do what you have always done as a brand. While detractors will see purpose as a shiny bright object, I think it’s a critical and strategic direction setter. The “translation” that often gets missed, and the reason why purpose continues to lag in uptake in some quarters, is how a goal to change the wider world should impact on immediate and longer term business plans and performance. Here’s a great exercise your management teams can do to close those gaps and to start to join the dots. Four columns on a whiteboard. First column – “What’s the greatest things our customers want in the world?”. Second column – “What’s the greatest things our customers want from us?”. Third column – “What’s the greatest things we want from our customers?” Fourth column – “What’s the greatest things we want for ourselves?” Work through answers and connection points between the columns. Now – and this is the critical bit – weave everything you’ve learnt into a manifesto that expresses everything that is most important to you and to the people you market to. You may think that sounds easy. It isn’t. You may think it won’t affect how you work. I promise you, if you’ve done it properly, it won’t just change how you work, it will revolutionise it.
  5. Wrong pace – If the speed at which your brand operates is out of alignment with the speed at which consumers accept or want change, things can quickly become confusing. While much is made of the need for greater speed, there are plenty of examples – such as Microsoft’s Windows 8 – where the brand presented ideas that the market literally was not ready for and that clashed with how they liked to use the product. This quickly put them offside with their traditional base. Finding the sweet spot between habit and intrigue I think is one of the hardest things to do well as a marketer. Three things I believe are critical – and they seem obvious when you say them, but they don’t get aired enough in my view. Firstly, what do consumers need time for? Secondly, what are they impatient for? Thirdly, what pace are your competitors operating at, and what can you learn from them in terms of where to accelerate and where to be patient?
  6. Redundant excellence – While going at the wrong speed for consumers can break your brand, so can not changing enough or continuing to stand for ideas that consumers and society have moved on from. This is particularly the case in fast-moving, technology-fuelled sectors where convergence is rapid and far-reaching. There are some sectors, such as beverages, for example where a shift back to natural and crafted is welcomed. There are others, particularly around media, where focusing on what you value at the expense of what consumers are looking for can cost you dearly. Polaroid, Kodak, Blockbuster, Nokia … the list of victims is long. The key to avoiding their fate is to continually ask yourselves as a brand, “What sector are we in today?”. Knowing that, and shifting and fine-tuning your brand not just to the changes and nuances of that, but to a competitive and distinctive position within that (re)defined sector are critical.
  7. Lack of insights – Brands live and die on their ability to read and translate human needs into ideas that are deeply associated with them. The ability to find the humanity in everything your market intelligence is telling you decides the brands that flourish. Too much reliance on big data alone will give you brand by numbers – the macro landscape that lacks the telling detail. Too little understanding of “little data” (the habits, preferences and schemas of your customer base) can also make a brand feel impersonal, even arrogant. More and more, marketers are seeing that not only do they need to find the mesh points between pattern and personal (big and little), but they must focus and consolidate that down to specific interactions that feel effortless, intuitive and yet unobtrusive. As consumers become more and more concerned about privacy and personal space, the key for brands will be to make the algorithms more natural, less predatory.
  8. Clumsy models – Modelling is an internal construct so its effect on consumers is indirect, but it can be far-reaching if the brand architecture within which brands sit means they are owned by different teams (with different agendas) or if brands work against each other rather than in tandem. Clumsy brand models confuse buyers because points of difference and value propositions can become blurred. The key to successful brand modelling is having a distinctive overall position and positioning for each brand within the architecture. That way, each brand is a specific, valuable and focused contributor to the overall position. This ensures that all the brands gain maximum leverage from the brand, and that consumers are very clear about which occasions warrant which brand choice. Investors need to be aware too of the effects on brand when they press for corporate mergers or break-ups that change the brand break-up. When a brand is split for example, the loss of brand value is often greater than the financiers focused on, and it will take longer and cost more to build and rebuild the new brands. Equally, the effect of joining powerful brands can be less effective than investors may have hoped. Again, the newly-merged brand will need time and investment to build understanding and momentum in the marketplace. It’s tempting for senior decision makers to read brands in much the same way as they read organisational charts. The difference in brand models is that the value is embedded in how consumers perceive the brands they buy not who manages them.
  9. Bad spending – The onus on marketers to invest well is increasing and will continue to do so. Reactions to this are mixed. Some brands are looking to bring more of their resources inside. Others are pressing their suppliers to deliver more and more for less money. Others are adding more agencies and consultants to their shopping cart in a bid to diversify advice and compare ideas. In a world where too many consultancies have a barrow to push at the expense of the big picture, shiny bright object hunting can quickly diminish effectiveness and leave other decision makers scratching their heads. SEO, digital, video, advertising, Facebook – all serve the brand, not the other way round. For me, the two questions that help decide spend are fundamental: what stands between us and our growth targets?; where do we need to be talking in order for that gap to close? I watch so many brands with too little to say throwing money at ‘content’ or something else because that’s what everyone’s talking about in the trades. My rule is simple: spend what you must to be interesting to the people who matter to your brand and be that interesting in order to make the money you’ve been tasked with earning. Any more than necessary is indulgent; any less is irresponsible.
  10. Lack of aesthetic – In the snapshot world that brands compete in today, you either look the part as a brand or you don’t. Too many brands today persist with brand identities and visual systems that feel so out of touch. Experiences too are increasingly tied to smart and informed design and design thinking. Aesthetics alone won’t save a fundamentally flawed brand (nor should they) but equally if your brand identity does not reflect the sophistication of your thinking and the spirit of your culture, then you are literally selling yourselves short. In many ways, your aesthetic reflects your priorities. Attentive brands pay attention to first impressions and to detail. Be a brand that your customers want to be seen with and that your own people are proud to serve under. Recognise that how you look has a direct influence on how others feel. Invest consistently and inventively across your touchpoints on that basis.

Note: A version of this post has been published elsewhere under the title 10 Brand Threats And How To Counter Them.

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