Think about all the brands you encounter on a daily basis. Some you use, some you know about, some you’re just hearing of. The thing is, each one of these brands is in a defined stage of its “brand life cycle.”
Some are in their “infancy” and have seemed to come from nowhere to capture market share and show no signs of slowing down. Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram, for example, didn’t exist ten years ago but are worth more than many century-old consumer favorites.
A much larger number are what we could consider “mature brands” that have been around for a long while, but still experience steady growth and still attract new customers in a consistent if not spectacular way. Many consumer packaged goods manufacturers, automakers and durable products (i.e., appliances) would fit in here.
Others are finding their trajectory on the decline and show no signs of recovery. These brands and companies seem to be running out the clock, careening towards the inevitable buy-out, bankruptcy reorganization or liquidation. A few of these (at least, according to Business Insider) could be J.C.Penney, Martha Stewart Living, Volvo and the WNBA.
So what is it that triggers a mature brand’s decline into soon-to-be-irrelevance? Why are some brands successful at continually “remaking” themselves in the eyes of consumers, while others can’t seem to get any traction? Are there steps mature brands can take to stave off “old age”?
While there are probably as many reasons for a brand’s decline as there are flailing brands, the main causes seem to fall disproportionately in the following camps: falling behind in efficiency, innovation or financing; being victim to changing market conditions, technology or consumer megatrends; losing touch with core customers (moving away from why they became customers in the first place); and (this is the most preventable) walking away from a solid market position into standing for “nothing special” (I’m talking to you, Volvo).
While it would be naive to think any brand will prove to be immortal (at least in the incarnation it is currently in), there are a few things brands can do to ensure they live to a ripe old age:
Find new applications for your brand’s offerings.
The classic example here would have to be Arm & Hammer Baking Soda. While the use of baking products has been on a steep decline since the Women’s Movement of the 1970s, Arm & Hammer discovered its baking soda was remarkably effective at absorbing unwanted odors. Check your refrigerator, litter box or laundry, and chances are you’ll find the Arm & Hammer name there somewhere.
Find a new audience for your core offerings.
I once worked on behalf of a software company that spent tens of millions of dollars developing a sophisticated system for hospitals that would coordinate all patient records, automatically update them and make them available for any authorized specialist to access. Pretty cool stuff. The problem was, the red tape, the bureaucracy and Federal privacy requirements of the hospital industry made it unlikely the company would turn a profit in the foreseeable future, no matter how amazing it was. Once the firm’s management team came to terms with this, they asked how their software technology could be applied to other industries. Today, the company is one of the leading providers of “close-ended” networks for organizations that need to manage and coordinate multiple sub-contractors (aerospace, defense technology, etc.).
Narrow focus to a growth niche.
It wasn’t that long ago that Nokia owned the mobile phone market. At one point, the Finnish company boasted a market share in excess of 50%. Then they got taken down. Emerging companies such as Apple and Samsung understood that “mobile data” was about to change everything. Apple never made a “flip phone” back when they were all the rage. They focused on a narrow niche (one that Nokia didn’t even see as relevant). Which brings us to the next point…
Continually be asking “what’s next?”
Change, as the saying goes, is a constant. New technologies arrive at a mind-numbing pace. Today’s fad passes faster than it arrived. Consumers are on a never-ending quest for convenience and value..
This is why it is important (especially for market leaders) to employ a Flanking Strategy. This is a commitment to make sure the next wave lifts you up and doesn’t drown you. Dedicate a meaningful budget (say, 10% of your net profits) to figuring out where your industry could possibly be going when it comes to technology and consumer trends. Had Nokia done this, it might actually be a relevant company these days.
Keep the baby, but throw out the bathwater (radical repositioning).
Old Spice. Domino’s Pizza. UPS. These are brands that any logical reasoning says should be headed for the scrap heap. But look at what they were able to do, just by “radical repositioning.” Old Spice is now a favorite of teen boys. Domino’s sales were up nearly 40% over two years. And UPS has emerged as the “favorite” courier of American business.
Radical repositioning isn’t easy, it isn’t cheap and it won’t work for every brand. But when the planets are in alignment, it can prove to be the Brand Fountain of Youth.
My advice to all brands is to accept that things aren’t always going to be the way they are now. Consumers will change. Technology isn’t going to slow down. And new competitors will continually come out of the woodwork. (Don’t believe me? Just enter your most-used search terms into Google, and see who shows up.)
By accepting that things will inevitably change (then taking the steps to react to them), the odds of your brand staying relevant well into its “golden years” will go up substantially.
Posted by Mickey