Why Good Brands Fail

Brand identity veteran David Brier has seen it all. In this blog, he addresses the concept of brand "Reinvention." Here, David introduces the dreaded and costly affliction "Brandus Interruptus" and the cure.

The Dream
You wake up with a brilliant idea, a new concept no one has thought of before. You develop a flawless marketing plan over morning coffee, word gets out and by noon, the best teams of specialists all call you. All these world-class designers, marketing consultants, media planners, and brand management professionals offer you their services free, just to be part of your breakthrough concept. By 3:00 p.m., four major global corporations have had their legal departments fax over contracts to form co-branding efforts....

Hey, let's get real. If it were this easy, there wouldn't be brand development and image management firms, nor all the activities (not to mention all the books on the market) designed to develop and manage brands. So until it gets this easy, brands either do well, so-so, or poorly—depending on how well they are conceived and maintained. If it's going well, good. If not, then you're suffering needlessly from the dreaded affliction: Brandus Interruptus.

The Symptoms of Brandus Interruptus
A brand exists for one key purpose: to be the bridge that connects a product's or service's promise (e.g., "To help you become a world-class athlete") with the consumer's desire (e.g., "Just do it"). So how do you tell whether your brand is living up to its potential or giving you the short end of the stick (i.e., Brandus Interruptus)? There are symptoms. Trying to be like another company is one (violating every basic premise of positioning and the very reason for branding: differentiation). Trying to be everything to everybody is another. Having no or random design consistency is yet another. Identifying the branding objective is the key step in preventing or halting the dreaded Brandus Interruptus and its accompanying symptoms. Is it to reposition an ailing brand? Is it to invent a category that no one has claimed yet? Or is it to handle a real oversight where the brand has lost its relevance?

Below, you'll find the qualities necessary in creating and managing a world-class brand, a clarification on the differences between brand strategies and brand tactics, and why we hear so much about brands reinventing themselves (and what problem this is really solving and how to avoid this pitfall in the first place).

A Category of One
The grandest objective and ultimate dream-come-true would be becoming—and sustaining—a category of one. Being best in a category is admirable, but being in a category of one is truly the prize trophy.

Some time ago, an installment in the Wall Street Journal's branding series featured David S. Pottruck who was then Co-CEO of the Charles Schwab Corporation. In this interview, he stated, "We're not trying to become the traditional model of a full-service firm. We're establishing the new model. That's a very challenging brand position to build because people want to pigeonhole you. Oh, you're like this firm or, You're like those guys. Well, what we want is to be unlike anyone else. In other words, a category of one."

Maintaining Brand Stamina
So let's say you've had the good fortune to develop a sound brand. How do you manage it so it doesn't suffer from "Brandus Interruptus"? The following scale shows the qualities that a brand has, as well as the qualities that reflect how it is managed. The qualities on the left, by their very nature, detect and prevent "Brandus Interruptus." Conversely, the qualities on the right are not only the warning signs of a troubled brand, but are also the very demons to be found in a brand skating on thin ice.

Examples of consistent brands are MTV and IBM. Neither is capricious about how its brand is presented to the world. Neither allows chaos to compromise the brand. MTV's "chaos" is its brand, whereas IBM's reinvented freshness has rejuvenated a stale and previously stagnant brand. Some years ago, Hewlett Packard had openly expressed to the world that its brand had become complacent and engaged upon some much-needed soul searching. As a result, HP moved from the struggling right side (complacent) to the reinvigorated left side (inquisitive).

Prevention Is the Best Medicine
Just as prevention is the best medicine, understanding is the best form of prevention.

The best-managed brands utilize the brand as an anchor. To understand this is to understand the difference between:

  • a brand strategy and
  • a brand tactic.

A brand strategy is a long-term plan, with bigger and broader objectives. Brand tactics are those actions designed to forward the brand's strategic objectives.

Example: A brand strategy could be to develop the best online service for cat lovers. A brand tactic would extend from that, such as evaluating all possible competitors to see their strengths and weaknesses, developing certain marketing goals from that information. An even more basic tactic could be forming an alliance with the best cat food manufacturer. Brand strategy=big picture plan. Brand tactics=day-to-day implementation that makes it possible to forward the strategic plan.

The Cure
We read about it everywhere. Reinvention is an all-too-common term these days used in branding and marketing circles. Let's look at the reality of this popular concept and face this fact:

Reinvention = Purpose reinforced.

Well, if a purpose needs reinforcement (or refreshing, like popping a breath mint), that tells us the purpose and mission of that brand went off the rails somewhere—maybe all at once, or slowly through gradual erosion. It's like forgetting one's name, or career, or the reason one gets up in the morning. Each results in a diminishing of both drive and clarity for doing what one is doing.

So, let's go earlier. A company starts out (hopefully) with a purpose: to solve "X" for some identified public. Things take off. Word gets out. Production demand increases. Day-to-day needs flood everyone's plate. The brand goes on "automatic." Everybody's really busy-busy forgetting about brand presence, brand purpose and the reason all this activity was started in the first place.

Well, nothing runs on automatic for too long. That's why the world's great brands—Nike, Apple, Harley Davidson, Dyson, and Facebook to name a few—all went through a process of "reinventing" (or redefining) their brands. What they really were doing was refueling their "lost" drive—their misdirected purpose— reclaiming ownership of what had been theirs to begin with. Keeping a brand alive involves a consistent and continuous assessment of the marketplace-the same type of assessment that was done when any enterprise first came into existence.

When this is all left unattended, all of a sudden you'll find everyone talking about the need to "reinvent" the brand. It's a poor substitute for forgetting why one was doing what one was doing in the first place.

And the cure? Keeping one's brand alive, fresh and consistently relevant.

David Brier is an award-winning brand identity designer, author, and branding expert who believes cookie cutters are for baking, not branding. His firm's work has won the admiration of peers and organizations and, most importantly, has helped clients jump-start their brands in new and innovative ways, even (and especially) when they've failed in previous brand makeovers. At his Web site, you can request your free copy of "The Lucky Brand" which over 500 branding professionals have downloaded in just the last 60 days. You can also follow him on Twitter here. Share, feature and tweet this article to anyone whose brand you care about. It's that important.

Add New Comment

2 Comments

  • Patrick King

    I always enjoy your straight approach to explaining branding. One of the biggest challenges with being a branding consultant is communicating the value of a well-crafted brand to a potential client. All too often, it's made complex, given the impression that it's more of a headache than it's worth, and just turns clients off. There needs to be more consultants like us; straight-shooters that make successful brand ownership easy to understand. Thanks for the great article!

  • Roshini

    David:

    Thanks for this terrific write-up. Way to Communicate That! I especially like the brand continuum you give. What a great check list for each of us business owners to regularly review for our own brands. You really outline ways an individual can make sure he or she is communicating "one-ness" well. Thanks again for sharing your expertise.

    Best,
    Roshini
    www.roshinigroup.com