No doubt about it change is hard. Humans resist change until they absolutely have to. Like a bad habit, you won’t kick it until it threatens your very existence. So it is with changing a brand’s perception in the minds of customers.
Brand is a ”node” in the mind of consumers. Once a customer’s mind is made up about a brand, it takes a lot of imagination and a great team to ‘reposition.’ Marketers embarking on the re-positioning journey must recognize it’s an inside-out process not for the faint of heart. Brands become what they have proven themselves to be. Mental perceptions are hardened by experience. People can’t form new perceptions without a new experience.
Brand owners are the first to resist change.
There is a long period of denial before brand owners will change their own thinking. It can take years of sales declines before brand owners will wake up and deal honestly with a brand that is losing ground. This is especially true of iconic brands that once were leaders. There is often a sense of complacency or personal pride that cripples organizational action. Long before the cash starts drying up, iconic brands lose relevancy and customers. It’s hard to see this happening in real time. The dynamics of organizational thinking tend to favor the status quo.
If you’re going to change brand perceptions, the process begins by changing from within.
For many brands, the default button for changing brand perception is shifting to a new agency, creating a different slogan or new ad campaign. But remember brand is a set of associations in the customer’s mind, based on their experiences. So, merely changing the message does not change the ‘brand.’ Customer’s perceptions change when they have a new experience.
Meaningful change in brand perceptions first requires honest internal assessment and deep introspection. This is difficult for brand teams to do these days as brand teams are hyper-focused on the urgent work (running the business) rather than the important work (creating new value that represents a bigger future).
Ask the Big Questions
The first question that requires a well developed answer is: “What must change within our organization that will enable us to create a greater experience of value that our customers will care about”?
You can’t begin the journey of changing outside perceptions without internal clarity, confidence and consensus on what defines your brand’s value proposition and why it will continue matters to people. If your brand were gone tomorrow, would anybody care?
Choose a Course of Action
Assuming your brand team has the necessary internal clarity, confidence and consensus about what must change and where the greatest opportunities for success are found, there are two strategic options available. There are positives and negatives associated with both alternatives, but both will require a lot of time, hard work and money. Let’s take a top-line view of these options.
1) continue to invest in the current brand, or
2) invent a new brand
Continue to invest in the current brand:
If the decision is made to continue to invest and turn around an under-performing brand, one thing must be understood: What got you here,, won’t get you there.
The key to success in this route is how willing and successful you are in helping consumers “unlearn” the associations they have with the current brand before you embed new associations and create more relevant experiences the target consumer segment cares about.
Starbucks is a great example of a successful turn around of an under-performing brand. After twenty years of ubiquitous expansion, the very thing that made the brand great was contributing to its demise. In addition, the brand faced growing threats from unlikely competitors such as McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts, who offered more convenience and lower prices (and some would say better coffee). Starbucks responded by changing nearly every aspect of its operations and core store experience from the inside out. Today the brand is once again enjoying the fruits of its leadership position. But it was a very expensive journey.
Invent a new brand:
In the long run, inventing a new brand from scratch may be a more prudent decision than attempting to change current perceptions. This is particularly true if the brand’s positioning has boxed it into a market segment that has no future.
Black & Decker faced this very challenge. As the market for consumer power tools began to get more competitive and saturated, Black & Decker brand managers decided to expand into the construction products market. Of course, the construction professional perceived the Black & Decker brand good enough for sporadic odd jobs, but not the kind of product that could stand up to prolonged, rigorous professional use. No amount of product design or advertising would change this perception.
To enter this market, Black & Decker re-introduced the DeWalt brand. DeWalt has been an enormous success for Black & Decker. One of the benefits of this strategy is the Dewalt brand now commands far higher price points. Plus, a good part of the market doesn’t even realize Dewalt is even made by Black & Decker (and that’s just fine with Black & Decker).
To enter a significantly different market, it may be necessary to invent a new brand, but doing so, along with positioning changes, pricing changes and fundamental changes in product functions and features that are more attuned to a new target consumer segment, and you may be able to have the best of both worlds.
At the end of the day, there are no absolutes or easy choices. Changing customer perceptions about a brand’s value and relevance is quite and undertaking. It’s worth repeating, the process requires brand manager have a clear purpose and vision, the determination to stay the course, and the time and money to do it right.
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