A Brand’s Life
Yes, brands live. Some would argue the most iconic brands even have a soul. We’re not saying that a brand is a person. But brands are similar to us in that they pass through many of the same phases and face some of the same challenges as people do.
What’s a brand’s life expectancy?
A brand is born when a properly funded idea acquires enough form that it can be sent out into the world to create an experience (product or service) that consumers and customers (hopefully) want and need.
Newborns are given aspirational, hip or unique names and assigned a wardrobe of colors and symbols that enable them to stand out and be seen. Today brand parents are finding it more challenging to name their newborns as availability of top-level domains (TLDs) and trademarks become more and more scarce. Overcoming this requires creativity, such as adding extra letters to common words like Distinc.tt (an LGBT activity/social community) and Caarbon (an on-demand valet service). Going completely away from “expected names” can pay off by simply piquing interest. Google, anyone?
Uniquely named and dressed for success, the baby brand is attended to by a team of caretakers (investors, management and employees) who work hard to ensure the baby brand delights and inspires and keeps its promises while introducing it to everyone so it can make lots and lots of friends (fans, consumers and customers). Warby Parker, the online eyeglasses purveyor has seen business rise exponentially due to its emphasis on a great user experience, excellent customer service, affordable product and give-back mentality.
Brands often pivot during their early years as technology, competition and culture drive changes to business plans. Sadly, not every nascent brand will make it. Some will go down in flames and rise from the ashes as a new brand. And some won’t make it at all.
If the baby brand survives long enough, it eventually will cross into adolescence, where it typically will go through a painful, awkward stage that looks a lot like — puberty.
The adolescent brand may start to notice that fewer people are talking about how special it is, and, instead, are starting to notice and talk more about its blemishes. This is the time when an adolescent brand needs to stop, take a step back and either recommit to its original intent, refine that intent or alter direction.
Airbnb had an adolescent experience with the introduction of their new brand (some say resembled genitalia). They took a lot of hits and are now starting to emerge — but it was awkward. Uber is for sure in adolescence. They are no longer the sweetheart and are having to deal with criticism. We are all waiting to see how that shakes out.
Typically, brands that reach their prime have figured out how to adapt quickly and intelligently to fast changing market conditions and are now focused on growth. If they’ve gone public (Google, Facebook), these brands are now faced with intense scrutiny by Wall Street, investors and a growing cadre of competition.
Customers, however, have embraced these unique and identifiable brands to the point they have become category leaders (Chipotle). Some brands like Apple & Nike are so beloved that consumers wouldn’t dream of any other brand for their computers, smartphones or footwear/sports apparel.
Ubiquitous category darlings, these prime brands are now the envy and example for others to follow.
Brands can get hitched or adopted at any age by merging or being acquired. Facebook acquired Instagram, WhatsApp and OculusVR. Apple acquired Beats, the wildly successful premium audio products company. Some brands will keep their maiden name while others will be absorbed by the spousal brand, ex. when acquired by Apple, Embark Map Systems became the Maps of Apple.
Naming decisions are made based on a number of considerations including brand equity and brand architecture. Often established brands struggle with who has better equity. In this case, a hyphenated name settles an arranged marriage: Sprint/Nextel or Sears/Kmart. Sometimes this works, think FedEx/Kinkos. Sometimes it becomes the worst merger in business history and ends in a messy public divorce, a la AOL/Time Warner.
Mid-Life Brand Crisis
Mature brands have to work hard to retain their cache with customers because there is always a cuter baby or sassier adolescent brand looking for opportunities to bump them out of their position in the marketplace. The mid-life brand may be tempted to recreate itself into a new and “hip” incarnation and this can become both embarrassing and costly. The equivalent of the sportscar and hairpiece.
To keep their seat, mature brands have to be super tuned into the needs and desires of their friends/family and team (customers and employees)and willing (and able) to evolve to accommodate them. Internally, it becomes critically important that leadership engage and align their team around the longer term strategic vision of the brand and empower them to communicate and carry out that vision. Apple and Netflix have both successfully reinvented themselves to such a degree that consumers have forgotten they ever struggled in the first place.
Brands that fail in maturity are more likely to fall out of favor with customers and be unseated by upstart brands willing and able to do what they were not. They may fall victim to leadership that fails to see the need for adaptation to market changes and consumer preferences.
Retail apparel brand Aeropostale has been listed by 24/7 Wall Street as a brand that might not survive because it has lost so much market share to competitors H&M and Forever 21. Deceased brands that once commanded huge market share include Blockbuster (2014), Oldsmobile (2004), Woolworth’s (1987). Each could be accused of failing to see and act on the future of technology, consumer evolution or brand perception.
Zombie brands are those that have fallen out of favor, filed for bankruptcy but somehow still manage maintain a following — sometimes for decades. Often they are acquired by a parent company who believes they can resurrect enough interest in the brand (Twinkies).
Polaroid continues to “live-on” despite everyone’s assumption that it died. It has re-embraced its original technology in response to consumers’ new appetite for old-fashioned instant photos. Pan-Am ceased operations over 20 years ago and lives on in a clothing line, luggage and briefly in a TV show. Not to pick on Blackberry again, but would you be surprised to learn they’re still making phones?
To ensure their longevity, brands, like people, must go in for periodic checkups where their true health is evaluated and any new or lingering issues are diagnosed and treated appropriately.
Brands that survive these key life stages can live long — and prosper for generations. For example, Dixon-Ticonderoga Pencils (est. 1795), are still being sharpened around the world, despite the introduction of new digital tools.
A brand’s life is not always easy, but when well cared for, it can acquire such deep (and protective)meaning that its presence will span generations, earning from customers a brand’s highest possible achievement: to be seen as an Icon.