Managing unexpected brand success

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Marketers are relentlessly judged on performance. Growth is everyone’s KPI. And yet, as every direct marketer knows, be careful what you ask for. One of the biggest challenges any brand can face is managing unexpected brand success.

In this post:

Dealing with unexpected success
Too much, too little, or both
Controlling unexpected brand interest
Building long-term brand loyalty
Trend vs talk
Knowledge commoditises
The six things you need to successfully manage
The power of volatility
The role of prediction
How to successfully manage unexpected brand success

Dealing with unexpected success

As an example of how surge dynamics can challenge whole industries, consider the situation that medical supply companies in the US recently found themselves in.

During the height of the COVID crisis, medical product manufacturers saw demand for their products soar. Mohammad Behnam, Marc Chelala, Tony Gambell, and Miyu Toyoshima Galliart at McKinsey & Company studied what happened to these medtech suppliers and observed three stages of crisis:

1: Existing inventory was depleted as demand increases
2: Manufacturers struggled to keep pace, hampered by bottlenecks and regulatory constraints
3: The disruption expands into other areas as a broader range of products are affected.

But they also identified five interventions that helped unlock supply and enable delivery. We’ve listed these below, alongside some thinking on how other brands could apply these learnings:

  • Allocate what you have quickly and smartly. Get the inventory that is available to the right places to maximise effectiveness. So – that requires being able to pinpoint where the greatest demand is coming from.
  • Look beyond your field. For example, in the case of COVID, construction companies had respirators, gloves and other equipment that they could make available to hospitals. So – if there is sudden pressure on your resources, who could you turn to, to help out?
  • Optimise existing capacity by looking for quick wins in the current supply chain. So – that means finding the blockages and go-slows and prioritising fixing them.
  • Introduce new capacity, by involving adjacent industries to produce what’s needed and/or sharing intellectual property and/or streamlining approvals. So – do others make something like what you make? Could you partner with them?
  • Finally, introduce new specifications and designs that improve what was available and enable greater volumes. So – once you understand what the future need is, how will you fast-track improvements to get there?

Too much, too little, both

COVID pushed many industries to the edge, or past it. But for some, it led to huge surges in demand, either during the COVID years or immediately afterwards. That in turn generated two opposing problems: gearing up; and gearing down. For some, the main issue was getting up to speed. Post-COVID, the travel industry is still trying to keep pace with what must feel like insatiable demand.

For others, like Peloton and food delivery companies, they reacted to a surge in need but then over-estimated the residual demand and found themselves over-invested in a future that had evaporated even more quickly than it formed.

So what can we learn from how medtech companies acted, and how could those learnings be applied to other brands?

Controlling unexpected brand interest

Let’s start with what happens when you get waves of visitors. It’s tempting to have your head turned by the massive numbers that can swarm a post, a thought, an idea, a product.

Suddenly your metrics are through the roof and your mentions are running like ticker-tape. You are the talk of the world, and the temptation of course is to think you’ve made it.
You have their front of mind. But that space is mercurial, and attention is now a false prize.

But such amazing scale-up often comes with an equally astonishing fade. You may get the attention but that’s no guarantee you’ll hold it. Once the swarm moves on, chances are you’re flocksam; one more thing they leave behind.

Managing unexpected brand success in terms of controlling unexpected brand interest requires you to:

  • Identify what they’re attracted to – and how you can deepen your connection with that idea – so that the relationship is more than a passing fad
  • Examine what you have to hand that you can use to satiate demand
  • Look for what you can leverage, with the tail-wind of popularity behind you
  • Consider changing your pricing to maximise returns from demand
  • Limit availability to make your brand more difficult to access, and use this to add to desirability and perceived value

Building long-term brand loyalty

However, at the very same time as you are being swamped by a popularity wave, chances are you are also growing a loyalty current.

The two groups have very, very different drivers. But they grow, at different rates, simultaneously. Two distinct behavioural bell curves.

While those in the wave are momentarily inclined to fashion and trends, those in the loyalty current are looking for stability, consistency and reliability.

They want to go on a journey with you – and they’ll stay as long as it’s exciting, rewarding, involving. Loyal customers may well be a smaller group, possibly a quieter group, but they are vital because, critically, they fill the gaps between the popularity waves you generate. They are your residual brand base. These are the customers who will talk about you in a sustained way, buy into your story, give you feedback, will you to succeed. They are the ones who are buying your products between the headlines.

This current generates cashflow.

Trend vs talk

But that comes with conditions – and one of those conditions is that, as their loyalty increases, they will take more and more interest in what the brand is and what it stands for. They will hold you to account for where they believe your brands needs to go and what they expect to see and experience.

Increasingly brands are going to need to be able to sift waves from currents, and to find sophisticated ways to recognise and realise the potential of both. That will require a much more dimensional view of the marketing, products and viewpoints needed to capitalise on on-going loyalty (trend) versus those that gain the attention of, and provoke the buzz for, passing interest (talk).

So many brands – swimming from sudden, new demand – lose sight of those who will stick around.

Managing unexpected brand success in terms of encouraging brand loyalty requires you to:

  • Segment friend from trend
  • Understand their buying patterns – what they buy, when, in what quantities
  • Don’t let them get lost in the crowds. Look for ways to recognise them and reward their long-term interest even as others come and go
  • Offer them ways to become even more involved
  • Innovate in ways that help your loyal base benefit.

Knowledge commoditises

Once learned, something is no longer new. In fact, it retains distinctive value only whilst the numbers of people who have access to that knowledge remains small. And yet, thanks to all things social, the chances of that happening are becoming less and less. And the pressures to democratise what one knows are also increasing.

So everyone feels a pressure to learn (FOMO), and many brands feel a pressure to share … but once accessed by many people, it quite literally devolves to common knowledge. It becomes how ‘everyone’ does things, what ‘everyone’ agrees on, the way ‘everyone’ sees the world.

If your brand is built around an idea that people find bewitching, you need to manage how that idea engages and interacts with the market. To do this effectively from a brand perspective:

  • Look at how you can repackage that idea in new formats – adding new value as you do so
  • Have a follow up in place, ready to build on your initial thought
  • If your brand idea is fictional, build a storyworld within which that idea can reside
  • Link your idea to other powerful ideas that emerge, so that it retains relevance and interest

The six things you need to successfully manage

Consumers want brands to be predictable. They want to know where they’re heading. And yet, at the same time, they need them to be refreshing and interesting. Managing unexpected brand success is all about balancing and managing these six critical brand outcomes:

  • Familiarity – enough of what we know about a brand needs to remain consistent enough for long enough for us to recognise it and treasure it. This is the bedrock. Change at this level happens very infrequently.
  • Response – markets change, competitors change, customers change, businesses change – and brands need to be able to move with those currents. This is the most changeable aspect of a brand. This is where the tweaks and the upgrades happen.
  • Initiative – to avoid being a passive player, brands must take the lead. They must be prepared to innovate. These are the changes that happen over the medium-term. They take that much longer because they have greater scale, require greater energy and, if done well, motivate your competitors to rethink their own position.
  • Momentum: They must use knowledge to gain thought leadership status in their sector and to move customers’ and investors’ thinking forward to the point where it aligns with what they offer.
  • Protection: They must take care not to be so open with their thinking that competitors gain the upper-hand or that customers feel they can do things themselves.
  • Reaction: They must be prepared to react astutely and decisively as competitors choose to advance their own thinking in order to meet the insatiable demand of the market for new learning.

The power of volatility

A prediction is simply an educated guess as to what will be required in the future. Of course, we’d all like to think we have a greater understanding of what’s ahead than we do. And there is nothing to suggest that, once made, the track you have predicted will automatically come true.

In fact, the moment you believe you know where the market is going and how people are going to react, you set yourself up for … disappointment.

Of course, markets depend on that. Without opinion, emotion and uncertainty, they’d be no derivatives market for example, because they’d be no motive for volatility. Everything would flat-line.

The role of prediction

Nevertheless, prediction plays a part in all brand strategy decisions. So here are some of the questions we ask to help arrive at the right mix of the six decisions above.

  1. What are the things that a customer most looks for as signs that everything is tickety-boo? It might be the identity, it could be the service, it might be the attitude … something in people’s hearts underpins the relationship, or at least makes it real for customers. That’s a no-go zone unless the very fundamentals of the brand are the things holding it back.
  2. What are others doing? Where are they making inroads? What excitement are they generating in the marketplace and why? As a general rule, I build these decisions around how the brand will achieve its own objectives by directly confronting or countering competitor plays.
  3. Finally, where’s the unexplored territory in the market? What’s no-one thinking of or about that the brand could claim the high ground on? It might be a social position, it might be a service extension, it might be a learning from another market?

How to successfully manage unexpected brand success

Managing unexpected brand success by understanding how changes in market demand will motivate your customers and impact your brand performance is a necessary part of defining the future. Key to getting this right is identifying when to capitalise and when to exercise restraint. We can help you strategise how you successfully expand to meet demand, or how you restore brand strength if demand has receded. Find out more about how we can help you develop a Plan to Thrive.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

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