From Brand Building to Brand Rescue: What to do when things go very wrong.
Back in late 2008, Valeria Maltoni posed a great question on Conversation Agent: What happens when brands die? It was a fascinating question, and one that frankly doesn’t get enough coverage. Even now, in the middle of a global recession that may have already cost us several: Saturn, Circuit City, and perhaps even Saab, for starters.
As companies continue to bleed jobs, sales, profits, liquidity and funding, perhaps this is as good a time as any to start discussing the topic of… well, the specter of brand death: It’s causes, dynamics, mechanism, and outcomes. How do you plan for the death of a brand? How do you manage all of its painful final stages? How do you and your customers cope with something like that? And… to give you guys a ray of hope, can a dying brand be saved? And if so, how?
I know this series will be a bit of a departure for many of you: Conversations on the BrandBuilder blog usually focus on helping businesses improve their position and reach the next level in their evolution. What we are talking about here is a bit different. We’re looking at discussing difficult moments for any company: Continuity planning. Contingency planning. Emergency care. And potentially, if nothing can be done, last rites. (Sure, I want to say that every brand CAN be saved. And I believe that. But not every brand WILL be saved.
So the question, for once, and for the duration of this series won’t be “how do I make sure my company doesn’t end up in this situation,” but “now that we’re in trouble, how do we keep our sick company or brand from actually dying?”
As with humans, companies finding themselves headed for the emergency room require two basic things in order to turn themselves around and survive: Proper diagnosis, and proper care. And as with humans, most of the time, self-diagnosis and self medicating aren’t necessarily the wisest choices – especially when you’re dealing with a life-threatening problem rather than annual sniffles. In other words, when things start to get really bad, guess what: You’re going to need to seek professional care.
You’re going to need to call for help. But let’s not jump too far ahead of ourselves here. Before a company can ask for help, it has to accept reality:
Step 1: Preliminary Diagnosis.
Typically, symptoms of a dying brand may come in the form of customer attrition, declines in sales frequency or (volume per customer), eroding market share, a negative brand image (as reported through consumer reports, customer feedback and market studies), or even decreasing investor confidence.
But before this type of rescue/turnaround partnership can take place, managers of distressed brands need to come to terms with reality: Accepting that their brand or company is in trouble. Most companies ultimately fail NOT because they couldn’t be saved, but because their leadership fails to admit that they are in trouble and need help. This is the first step in the process.
How do you know when your company or brand is in trouble? Simple: When a preponderance of symptoms from the following list start popping up in your monthly or quarterly executive meetings. The short list:
- Pricing pressures are eroding your market share (and you can’t seem to reverse the trend without lowering your prices).
- Consumer preference data indicates that you are no longer either a contender for the top 1 or 2 choices in your product category.
- Your quarterly net new customer count is either decreasing or stalled.
- You are seriously contemplating eliminating 5-20% of your workforce to reduce costs.
- Customer complaints about your brand are increasing. (Quality, service, delivery, etc.)
- You have lost several of your best (historical) customers in the last 12 months.
- Your competitors’ products are getting a lot of great press and attention. Yours are not.
- Your best talent is starting to walk away.
- You are having a very tough time recruiting talent.
- You have cut costs by moving your call centers overseas, but now your customer service department is broken.
- Despite spending an obscene amount of money on marketing, advertising or PR campaigns, your business barely matches your industry’s growth rate. (If you’re lucky.)
- At least two out of the three cardinal measurements of your sales health (Frequency of sales, Reach of sales and average sales yield) show a flat or decreasing trend YoY.*
* Corporate lingo for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of working on the client side: QoQ = Quarter over Quarter. YoY = Year over Year.
Assuming anyone in your company is actually keeping an eye on any of this. You would be surprised how many companies’ sales managers don’t measure F.R.Y. or monitor historical new customer trending, how many marketing managers have absolutely no idea what is being said about their brands or where, and how many HR managers have their hands tied even when they it becomes clear that they are not winning the talent war.
Some of this can be attributed to managerial denial, sure, but a lot of the blame can also be attributed to two other factors: a) a lack of training or sophistication when it comes to establishing adequate, actionable metrics, and/or b) a lack of resources when it comes to managing these metrics with an eye towards regular course correction.
In order to connect the dots, you have to know how to identify the dots to begin with.
Getting help isn’t about admitting defeat, it is about getting results.
In order to climb out of a hole, you have to realize that you are indeed in a hole to begin with… and that you probably need help getting out. If you can’t think of a solution on your own, it’s time to get someone who knows how to help you dig your way out.
This topic reminds me of the scene in the 1998 movie “The Edge” (“The Wild” for my European readers) in which Anthony Hopkins’ character gets stranded in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness with two companions after a terrible plane crash. Alone in the wild, the three pampered city guys find themselves in an against-all-odds survival situation. The question the three characters keep asking each other – and themselves – is simple: How in the world are we going to survive out here? With no rations, no weapons or tools, no winter gear and chased by a relentless man-eating Grizzly, the three men have to rely on each other to make it back to civilization. About mid-way through the story, as their situation seems hopeless, Anthony Hopkins’ character explains to his lone surviving companion something that is absolutely relevant to today’s discussion of brand survival:
– You know, I once read an interesting book which said that, uh, most people lost in the wilds, they, they die of shame.
– Yeah, see, they die of shame. “What did I do wrong? How could I have gotten myself into this?” And so they sit there and they… die. Because they didn’t do the one thing that would save their lives.
– And what is that, Charles?
The answer in the movie is “Thinking.” The answer in the case of of rescuing a brand is the same: Thinking. The one difference being that brands don’t die because they get lost in the wilderness. They die because their stewards create an imaginary wilderness around themselves. If you’re a CEO or CMO who hasn’t figured out how to rescue yourself or your brand by now, it’s time to break out the emergency radio or start sending smoke signals. If someone doesn’t come help you get back on track soon, your brand will die, along with your career, and the only reason will have been that you were too ashamed to admit that you needed help.
Yes, brands can and do die of shame as well.
Reaching out for help is a tough sale for a lot of managers and business leaders. It requires them to admit two things they would rather not: 1. This brand is in serious trouble, and 2. I can’t fix this on my own.
The trick is to realize that asking for help is not the same thing as admitting failure. Quite the contrary. Hiring someone to help you fix something for you – or with you – is no different from hiring the best copywriter, salesperson or office manager you can find.
Here’s the thing: We are all too happy to turn to specialists when we need help in every other area of our lives: If we are sick, we go to a doctor. If we have a tooth ache, we go to a dentist. If we are out of shape, we hire a personal trainer. If we have emotional problems, we hire a therapist. If our dog misbehaves, we hire a dog trainer. We all hire people who can help us improve our lives or who can somehow help us do things we can’t do on our own. Landscapers. Attorneys. Consultants. Mechanics. Dry-cleaners. Interior decorators. Plumbers. Electricians. Life coaches. Nutritionists. Masons. Carpenters. Party planners. Accountants. Financial planners. Repairmen. Whatever. Specialists are there to fill our knowledge and skill gaps. Helping you fix a brand in crisis is no different. It’s just that there isn’t a section in the yellow pages for “brand interventionists”.
Hint: Looking for a brand specialist or marketing firm in the yellow pages is a lot like looking for a job in the wanted ads. Unless you happen to live in 1986, you are looking in the wrong place.
Likewise, looking for traditional marketing firms and ad agencies to fill your needs when it comes to the relatively new problem of brand erosion in today’s complex business world can be a risky endeavor. Old tactics don’t necessarily address new problems – at least not on their own. The toolkit has evolved. If your new advisor’s “ideas” sound awfully familiar, it’s okay to get a second opinion. Even a third. We’ll go into what to look for tomorrow.
Okay, so my brand is failing. I have to do “something.” What are my options?
While many marketing firms and departments are great at building strong brands, many fall short of expectations. It happens. Sometimes, they get too close to the company or the product and lose their ability to look at the big picture. Sometimes, they have been doing the same things for so long that they have lost touch with their customers, with new marketing tools at their disposal, or with consumer trends and tastes. These things happen. It’s just part of doing business. If – not when – this happens to your company and you find yourself in trouble, you basically have four options at your disposal:
- Fire your CMO or Marketing department (pretty drastic and rarely the right solution, but common).
- Spend more money on the same tactics that have failed, but pretend that you are doing something different (the definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result each time). This may be the most common reaction of the four.
- Drastically cut your marketing budget. Marketing doesn’t work anyway, right? (You might as well update your resume while you’re at it. This is the worst possible thing you can do in times of crisis. Even worse than firing your CMO.)
- Seek professional help to assist your CMO. Not just from a firm or agency that will gladly take your money to take approach #2, but from a firm, agency or specialist who will actually focus on getting measurable and immediate results for you, AND educate you in the process. Rescuing a brand needs to be as much a learning experience for your organization as it is an intervention.
The correct answer, of course, is option #4.
I cannot stress this enough: Do not hire a specialist, firm or agency that will take option #2 to get you back on track. I have seen it happen too many times, and it is the easiest trap to fall into. This will solve nothing, and waste precious resources on your end. Don’t do it.
Tomorrow, we will go over the second step in your brand intervention: Hiring a practitioner or specialized firm, and letting them help you diagnose and clarify the problems facing your brand.
Part 3 of this series will focus on developing a treatment for your brand.
In Part 4, we will go over how to best administer the treatment, and we will wrap it all up in Part 5 with long term strategies to kill the possibility of a relapse.
Tune in tomorrow for Part 2: Methods for diagnosing and understanding what is killing your brand.