Brands, like humans, go through stages of invention, evolution and reinvention. When well cared for, a brand can acquire such deep meaning that its presence will become part of our lives and maybe even our culture for generations. To better understand how to help your brand be an impactful asset to your business, we begin by asking: Where is your brand in its brand life?
Before a brand is born, it's just a glint in a founder's eye. Whether it's a start-up or a new addition to a larger brand family, this is where big ideas are translated into business plans and then into prototypes of products and/or services that people (investors, employees, consumers) want in their lives. Even if they don't know it yet.
The business plan and core strategy are complete. This is when the baby gets a name, a wardrobe, learns to speak and is presented to the world. Any new parent knows that babies can be expensive, so often this initial work is done on a dime. Cue the ”founded in my garage story.” But, when baby brands are well-funded by a parent company or an investment team, a brand strategy and design team can be engaged to help define a firm strategy and create a brand that is ready for its first steps.
As anyone with nightmares of middle school knows, the teen years can be awkward, but they can also be transformative. Confidence grows, they begin to have a better understanding of what they do well and how to best attract employees, investors and customers. They are the cool table. This is often when a brand discovers its true identity and has the bandwidth to invest in a more “grown-up” voice and visual design system. They examine their name, refine their identity and put some brand standards in place (sometimes rules can be a good thing) to position for growth moving forward.
These are brands at their most vibrant and agile. They adapt quickly and intelligently to fast-changing market conditions and work hard to continually attract new audiences with bigger and better brand experiences. Their core purpose, strategy and positioning are clear, they know who they are, and are now focused on growth. But beware: With fast growth comes the risk of quickly created (and not well-considered) sub-brands, product brands, campaigns, websites, etc and, if they are not all adhering to a core brand vision, sometimes they start to look like cats and dogs (aka Brand Soup) instead of sisters and brothers very quickly.
Sometimes, the growth strategy for complementary brands is to get hitched in a merger/acquisition. In some marriages, one brand gives up its name and takes on the name of the other. Sometimes, both partners keep their names. And if a marriage is really progressive, both entities take on a completely new name and relaunch as one new entity. This is a big moment in the life of brands and the transition needs to be handled appropriately both internally and externally, verbally and visually, to ensure market share isn't lost in the process.
In mid-life, brands will notice new, younger brands coming in and stealing their turf. They are no longer the cool kid in town. Leadership may be tempted to buy a Tesla and some Cavalli jeans to recreate the brand into a new and “hip” incarnation. But BE WARNED, this can be a cringe moment in a brand's life that, if not handled carefully, can both alienate existing fans and repel new ones. You can't say “make me look better” if you aren't willing to start living better. Successful brands navigate this period by reaffirming what makes them special and up-to-date in a way that's true and believable. Once the refreshed vision, strategy and value proposition is in place, this is an excellent time to announce it with a brand rejuvenation.
When a new up-and-comer starts looking too sleek, sometimes a more established brand will eat them up. For the entrepreneur who loves start-up culture but gets frustrated as rapid growth increases structure, attracting a Shark can make for a good exit strategy, but there are risks. The founder risks watching what they created disappear. For the larger brand, this strategy can eliminate the competition but, if attention isn't given to the care and feeding of the new brand and the reason why its customers love it, there is the danger of appearing to be an innovation crusher and being left with excess weight gain.
Legacy brands have a history and a loyal following that may resist change. We've all heard the saying, “it's a big ship to turn.” The art of legacy brand strategy is often a balance of honoring history and existing audiences while, at the same time, maintaining the ability to innovate and continually attract new fans. This means taking full advantage of current trends (digital, direct to consumer, in-store experiences beyond the transactional) while staying true to its core identity and brand promise. Nostalgia isn't a negative but great brands are never “done” and must always be ready and willing to evolve with each new generation.
A brand on life support is no life to live. A Zombie brand just wanders around in tattered clothes looking like a wasted version of what it used to be. It becomes an act of mercy to kill it. RIP Blockbuster, we never did return Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Sometimes, a once popular but dead brand reemerges as a new entity. Limewire, the defunct music platform that was mainly known as a pirated music site, is now being positioned as an NFT broker. And whether or not a new owner can reanimate a Zombie brand is as much a mystery as an NFT.