There comes a point in the lifecycle of most brands when they hit critical complacency. The marque has mainstreamed to the point where it effectively blends with its surroundings to form part of the amorphous middle. That’s the black hole towards which all brands are drawn. Competitiveness erodes. Prices start to fall. Comfort levels and intransigence soar. Appetites for risk, so apparent in the early years, fall away. Eventually, the lights go out. We could all run a list of those that have succumbed.
But while complacency and conservatism are easily spotted, they are much more reluctantly abandoned. Getting off the merry-go-round is difficult, because it requires management to re-radicalize; to muster the courage and the energy to pick new fights and wage new wars; to attack what they operate so efficiently and effectively now in order to save it. (Seth Godin in his book The Icarus Deception expresses clearly and strongly how and why industrialization works this way.)
It’s hard to be radical and commercial: hard because it so often looks unreasonable. As Gary Hamel has pointed out, it requires organizations to be able to identify what is sacred and what is unsacred, what should never be changed and what can (and perhaps must) continue to change. And, on examination, so many organizations hold the wrong things sacred. They cling to what they know rather than addressing what consumers want next. They believe their technologies and their techniques are the most important aspects of what they do. They rely on size and continuing to size up.
Better operations make you a better brand. But they don’t make you a more interesting brand. They may improve you, but they don’t iterate you. They streamline and correct the present, but they don’t ready you for your future. So if you are comfortable right now, that’s probably the strongest signal you’ll ever get that you need to get uncomfortable. Here are seven ways you can look to overturn your own brand, so that it lives to fight on.
1. Shoot your current mission – Take everything you’re now so proud of in terms of your aims and put it up against the wall. What did you lose to get to the point of acceptability you’re at now, and how are you going to reclaim the rage that once had the founders of the business saying “we have to start this company because what’s going on right now needs to be stopped”. This isn’t a history lesson and it’s not about nostalgia. It’s actually about re-starting; finding the spirit that once impelled brave people to put everything they had on the line. Get scared again.
2. Tell a shocking story – The story of the brand you will be will always be shocking. It will jarr. It will conflict with what seems sensible. It will appear far-fetched. And if it doesn’t, then the bar has not been set high enough. But – and this is critical – the story, while shocking to you, must be the one that your customers will be delighted to hear. It will redefine how they know you by upending what they know you for. Two things will really surprise you. How much your own people will resist, and need to be coaxed into, making changes that are in your brand’s best interests. And how quickly others will flood in to copy you as soon as your radical idea gels.
3. Apologize for your past success – We’re all prone to comfort seeking. We all seek the reassurance of knowing we have done well. Here’s an exercise for senior decision makers that I love because it systematically throws the cat among the pigeons. Draw up a list of your greatest successes as an organization. Now have each member of the senior team stand up and one by one apologize to senior colleagues for one of those successes and propose what they would have done better. Yes, it’s weird. But it works.
4. Break the market – Best way to do this? Take market models that have never talked to each other and smash them together to see what happens. For example, what would happen if you launched a car the way the music industry launches an album – or vice versa for that matter? This always seems strange for the brands concerned. In point of fact, while it’s disruptive, it’s a relatively straightforward way to radicalize because you are essentially “transposing” a successful model from one place to another, adjusting as you go. It certainly inspires some wild and wacky questions. This is one of my favorites: “If Hallmark were an insurance company, how would they market their policies?”
5. Change how you’re found – If you still are where you’ve always been, and where you’ve always been looks pretty much the same as it always has, it’s time to give your distribution strategy a serious talking-to. Channels are among the most dynamic areas of marketing and the quest to intensify the loyalty of those who love you, earn the interest of those who don’t (yet) and broaden your appeal to those who have yet to see why they should bother is a battle that will only intensify in the years ahead. As physical, mobile and online continue to converge, your ability to invite people into your brand surroundings and to make them feel welcome will become increasingly important.
6. Rewrite the experience – Giving customers new experiences isn’t always about upping the ante, but it is about informing, delighting and recognizing them in ways that others won’t or don’t. This is the proving-ground, where everything your brand stands for lives or dies. If distribution is about efficiency and versatility, the experiences/encounters that people have with your brand are all about personality. Look for ways to be idiosyncratic. Align them back to your purpose, your values and your storyline. Experiences today, wherever and however they happen, are how you sign your brand.
7. Insist on new customers – Every successful middle-market brand has people who’ve been with them for years. You know them. They know you. They’re incredibly valuable, and you need to nurture them for all you’re worth. But you can’t just assume they’ll always be there. Where are the next generation of customers? Your ability to identify and adapt to your next era of buyer will decide whether you continue to grow and include or stand still and shrink. Link your innovation strategy to the people you’re trying to attract. Whose being neglected right now elsewhere in the market? Who thinks you hold nothing for them? Who is dying to be welcomed? Reach out to them with new ideas that redefine everyone’s understanding of your mandate.
One final note. Providing you don’t trample on anything sacred, nothing you do to radicalize your brand will, in all likelihood, feel as radical to others as it does to you.
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