How to stop a brand identity crisis

Today’s brand flop can be tomorrow’s nostalgic ribbing, if you play your cards right. Pepsi had a good laugh about reintroducing Crystal Pepsi, after all. And Coca-Cola unironically relaunched New Coke as Coke II and happily sold it for another decade.

It’s next to impossible to avoid any sort of friction around your brand identity. Tastes change, markets change, and products must at some point change with them. Don’t forget—Apple was a computer company before it launched a digital music store (iTunes) and portable player (iPod), and neither was a particularly obvious fit. And it was a computer company with a healthy music business when it decided to take on a smartphone world dominated by Nokia and Blackberry—again, not at all an obvious brand extension.

It’s how an organization navigates around and through a brand identity crisis that sets them apart. Here’s a coping toolkit.

 

The crisis may be in your head

When you live and breathe marketing and brand, it’s easy to forget that not everyone does. And, true, a major branding misfire can create an opening for defection from which you’ll never recover. But that doesn’t mean it will.

“Most consumers live in a light fog of brands. Only a few really make it into their hearts,” Greg Daake, principal and creative director at the namesake DAAKE agency. “Your brand’s standing is never as great, or as bad, as it seems.”

 

Spread the blame

In the midst of every brand crisis, the rest of the world points and collectively shakes its head, sadly intoning, “Somebody approved that.”

And they’re right. Almost always, it took more than just one “somebody” to create an identity crisis, or to allow it to foment. While deciding how to change the brand’s direction, be sure to ask questions about how everyone arrived at this point, and what everyone from senior management to agency collaborators are going to do to bail out of it.

And don’t expect the visionary or executive sponsors to fall on their sword and accept full responsibility. David Novak, credited with inventing Crystal Pepsi, once told Fast Company that he stands by his brilliance and blames the team for poor execution.

 

Be real about quality

Resist the temptation to conflate a brand identity crisis—a real, fundamental question about the vision and direction of a product or service—with delivering a sub-par product that nobody wants.

“Give consumers credit—if something is better, they are going to move on. Your problems could exist beyond the brand identity,” Daake says. “If you are getting totally dominated in an industry, sector, or vertical, if you’ve lost the will to win, it may be time to let that brand and equity die.”

 

Avoid self-inflicted wounds

JCPenney has been an identity-crisis punching bag for years, but the discount department store market has been so brutalized in the e-commerce era that it was clear they needed to try something. Ron Johnson’s infamously failed brand reboot was simultaneously bold and a spectacular failure, but it was at least a motivated failure. It’s a little harder to swallow unforced errors.

Kimberly Tyner, partner and chief creative officer of Spire Agency, points at Zippo’s line of fragrances for men and women. “What does a lighter company have to do with perfume?” she asks.

Clearly, someone looked at a rectangular perfume bottle, saw a similarity to a Zippo lighter, and a chance to build a reminiscent product. But the concept has not caught the imaginations of the cologne-wearing public.

“Did they actually lose the core audience of people who are going to buy a lighter? Probably not,” she says. But the perfumes are typically available at a heavy discount, which is unusual for Zippo-branded products.

Call it a crack in the brand’s armor—reparable, but not a great look. And, she says, an object lesson for other brands about the opportunity cost of taking your eye off the core of your business. “You can end up busying yourself with unprofitable work while leaving yourself unavailable to pursue and service your true customers.”

 

Never stop trying

The joint tale of Netflix’s ascendance and the demise of Blockbuster are sure to come up in any current discussion of brand vision and failures. The simple story that Netflix defeated Blockbuster because home delivery, and later streaming, were superior to the corner-store model overlooks some key details. Blockbuster did expand into digital platforms, including streaming, satellite, and DVD-by-mail services.

But Blockbuster remained firmly committed to the corner-store model, because the storefront was at the heart of their brand identity and they were unable or unwilling to pivot away from that strategy. When the brand crisis came, Blockbuster stayed fundamentally true to who and what it had been to date—and that, in their case, proved to be a losing strategy. Clinging to history won’t solve your crisis.

Jason Compton
Post by Jason Compton

Jason Compton is a writer with over 15 years of experience covering marketing, sales, and service. Based in Madison, WI, he is a regular contributor to Direct Marketing News, previously served as executive editor of CRM Magazine, and has been published in over 50 outlets.

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