The ironies of brand attitude

The ironies of brand attitude

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If you’re a brand leader and you’ve been one for a while, there’s a good chance you know your market and that you monitor and are highly aware of your competitors. All the market intelligence you have tells you where things are.

But for all the talk about competitive forces and the ‘hunger’ of leading players to take each other down, in the end, it’s probably not the direct competition that will do your brand the most harm. You know them. They are in your sights all the time. Ultimately, leading brands tumble not because of what they can see but because of what they can’t or didn’t wish to. Hilton Barbour’s cracking piece on how are you going to kill your brand points to the real enemies: the factors beyond your control, inside and out. The factors that sit beyond your lines of sight.

Attitudes rot brands from within because people won’t change. And attitudes challenge brands from outside because consumers and operating environments do change. There have been many lessons from Volkswagen’s credibility crisis, and I’m certain there will be many more, but the biggest take-out for me was just how vulnerable even the most powerful brand is to a change in regulations (external attitude shift) and the reaction from within to counter or beat that shift.

Actions and reactions

Any number of people are quick to dismiss values inside an organisation and the attitude that a brand brings to market as cultural pig-swill but in reality those ideas carry weight far beyond what gets pointed out in induction and the tone of the brand’s advertising. Attitude drives how a brand competes and how it speaks – and it sets the tone for what’s acceptable and therefore what’s possible. Get it right and you have a brand like Patagonia. Get it wrong and you end up growing Enron.

The irony is that the very thing that can galvanise and energise a brand, make it loveable and give it power can also break its back from a trust point of view. That’s powerful fairy dust.

Speed and change are such constants in our business lives that often we over-estimate them as competitive forces.

Leading brands are highly adept at making good products and monitoring and changing them to suit market dynamics. Brands have become highly tuned at producing to market pace – and so they have become very good at accelerating. Markets understand the concept of ‘more’. So do brands. Particularly ‘more of the same’. Where they really struggle is when the dynamics change to a pattern that doesn’t align with those parameters – to less for example – because then everything that was making sense doesn’t make sense anymore. Coke isn’t struggling to compete with Pepsi, but it’s got a real fight on its hands with less soda. Same for Big Food. In fact, Big anything.

In such circumstances, brands are literally struggling to get their heads (and then their businesses) around the new attitude. Generally they respond in two clearly patterned ways. They diversify to accommodate in the case of consumer changes, meaning they carry on with what they know and look to acquire or create a response to the market need. Or some look for ways to get round what they see as roadblocks – impositions to how they want to do business. Both responses are an expression of attitude.

Attitude as an advantage

As regulation and shifting consumer preferences and expectations continue to move the goal posts for brands in ways that they cannot directly control, personality, attitude and values are going to have influence far beyond the cultural atmosphere. The market leaders that will prosper from the shifts will be those that welcome and adapt to the new mandates because they see them as innovation-drivers. Those that will flounder will be the brands who cannot make the attitudinal changes, in how they speak and what they prioritise because they see these changes as impositions on how they feel comfortable doing business.

Changing attitudes inside a culture is probably the hardest thing to do. It requires conversation, patience, proof and stamina. One of the most powerful mechanisms I have found for achieving such change is to present issues that extend beyond business as usual as problems that the business must answer. Not beat, dismiss or react to – but face and respond to honestly. That’s hard. But it’s not the hardest bit. The real struggle for many is to create those responses and solutions within the values that the brand holds and with the attitude that the market expects.

What you see as a brand decides what you react to. And what you react to and how you react to it ultimately decides how others come to see you. As some are discovering, it’s a long road back from a shortcut.


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