Should you save your brand or let it die?

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Is your brand worth saving

Recently Patrick Hanlon wrote an interesting piece on branding a DOA brand. In it, he laid out a well thought-through plan to resurrect a dying marque: rediscover your reason for being; define your zealot consumers; define your brand assets; discover your relevancy all over again. His conclusion: “Even brands that seem out of date, irrelevant, and barely resonant with consumers can be re-imagined, reconceived, and reconstructed using this simple, regimented path.”

Hanlon’s approach for bringing a brand back from near-death seems logical. My question: Should you do it?

Birthing brands doesn’t seem to be an issue. In fact, marketers have no problem introducing new brands to market at a dizzying rate. As Professor Jerry Hausman explains, “The number of new products introduced in any year is astounding. New varieties of consumer goods such as cereal brands are evident, as any shopping trip to a local supermarket or Wal-Mart demonstrates. Potentially even more important are the new products based on technology: more than 55 million cellular telephones are in use in the United States.”

In an article on Digital Darwinism, Brian Solis quotes some fascinating stats: between 1973 and 1983, 35% of companies in the top 20 of the Fortune 1000 corporations were new. That ratio rose to 45 percent between 1983 and 1993 and then 60 percent between 1993 and 2003. Furthermore, over 40% of the companies that were at the top of the Fortune 500 in 2000 were no longer there in 2010.

You can read these observations in two ways: either that established brands are under constant threat from newcomers; or that brands themselves have a defined lifespan, after which most seem destined to fade (at various rates of attrition) and to be replaced. Solis mirrors Hanlon when he says, “What separates brands that falls [sic] to digital evolution from those that excel is the ability to recognize the need for change and the vision to blaze a path toward renewed relevance among a new generation of consumers.”

Again, the implication is that brands must endure and they must fight to endure in the face of ruthless competition. But if marketers are happy to see more and more brands enter a market, why would they be reluctant to kill off those that weren’t performing? And what would happen if more marketers planned brands with a ‘drop dead’ date?

If you take the view that a brand is only as relevant as the number of people who believe in what it stands for and the intensity of that belief, then a brand may well have a natural “Best Before” or even an expiry date. If the numbers of believers fall below a critical mass or if the belief itself fades or is overtaken (and thus becomes less valuable), the writing is on the wall. In Darwinist terms, as the beliefs on which a brand is based change, so does the relevance of the brand itself.

if you were going to strategise a brand that wasn’t intended to last, what differences might that make to the ways such a brand was planned for and resourced? You would, for example, probably base the business case and model for such a brand closer to FMCG, regardless of the sector. Chances are, you’d use more of a portfolio approach so that you had several brands in the market at once, with different expected “best before” dates and perhaps different price points. The timeframes wouldn’t necessarily be seasonal. They might be five years for example – but knowing that would frame innovation plans, distribution arrangements, rates of return and much more.

It’s an approach that’s intriguing, but not without its challenges. For example, promulgating finite term brands might cultivate not only short term thinking but also intense use of resources over that period. This in turn would encourage churn, and could promote irresponsible behaviour environmentally. Secondly, brands sometimes change identities to hide mistakes or bury bad reputations, and a short term brand could be tempted to do this, or be expected to do this, without attempting to do right by consumers. Again, that’s irresponsible. Third problem – how much brand equity would be wasted if you are constantly building, stopping and then rebuilding brands. How does the effort required to do that compare with the energy required to revive a dying brand? I don’t know. Finally, there’s the confusion for consumers to think about when all the brands you know are here today and gone tomorrow.

So the defined-timeframe brand concept has some merits as an alternative to building brands for eternity but would need to be thought through carefully. What I am clearer about is when you should save a brand, and when you might simply let it go.

I would apply Patrick Hanlon’s plan to brands with deep residual loyalty and a powerful and relevant belief system that continued to maintain their margins but that required a surge of energy, new products to make them more exciting, new management to make them more effective and/or new markets to allow them to grow. Worked for J. Crew, Burberry, and Target who kept the spirit of what made them great, and updated it. (It helped of course that all had amazing leadership.)

I would let a brand die that no longer resonated with customers because of the beliefs they associated with it, that seemed to be trading on nostalgia and little else and/or that had a reputation or history that was irretrievable for whatever reason. (Could anyone ever call a consulting company Monday again?) In those situations, I would judge that the energy required to re-imagine was better focused on a new brand rather than reconstruction or revival.

Photo of “Lifesaver” taken by marya, sourced from Flickr

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