Changing Brand Perceptions

Thomson DawsonSeptember 26, 20115 min

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.

Once a customer’s mind is made up about a brand it’s next to impossible to change it. Marketers embarking on the journey of brand transformation 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. Like the chicken or the egg, what comes first?

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’s a sense of complacency 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 brand owners, the default button for changing brand perception is a new ad agency, creating a different slogan or new ad campaign. Truth is, saying it’s so won’t make it so. Consumer’s perceptions only change through a changed experience. For consumers, experiencing new advertising (assuming they’re even listening) can never be a substitute for experiencing new and more relevant value from your brand.

Meaningful change in brand perceptions first requires honest internal assessment and deep introspection. This is difficult for brand teams to do these days– especially when their performance is judged by management on a quarterly basis. Brand teams hyper-focus on the urgent work (running the business) rather than the important work (creating new value that represents a bigger future).

The first question that requires a solid answer is “what must change within our organization that will enable us to create a greater experience of value 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 where gone tomorrow, would anybody care?

There Are Only Two Options To Consider

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 only two strategic options available:

1)    continue to invest in the current brand

2)    invent a new brand

There are positives and negatives associated with both alternatives, but both will require lots of time, hard work and money. Let’s take a top-line view of these options.

Continue to invest in the current brand:

If the strategic decision is made to continue to invest and turn around an under-performing brand, one thing must be understood–what got you there won’t get you there.

The key to success in this instance 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.

Iconic heritage brands that have abundant awareness but little relevance with a new generation of consumers are very difficult to change. Managers of iconic brands are naturally boxed in by the heritage the brand represents in people’s minds. Along the way it’s easy to blur the brand’s identity and value proposition attempting to stretch its meaning and value to new consumer segments.

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 McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts who offered more convenience and lower prices. 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.

But if the determination is made that the current brand associations by consumers bear too heavy a weight on the brand’s future expansion, inventing a new brand may be the only recourse for a fresh start.

Black & Decker faced this very challenge. As the market for consumer power tools began to get more competitive and saturated, Black & Decker brand owners 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 invented the DeWalt brand. DeWalt has been an enormous success for Black & Decker. One of the benefits of this strategy is the Dewalt brand commands far higher price points. Plus a good part of the market doesn’t even realize Dewalt is even made by Black and Decker (and that’s just fine with Black and Decker).

To enter a significantly new market, it may be necessary to invent a new brand (a very expensive option), 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 dicey at best.  It’s worth repeating, the process requires brand owners have a clear purpose and vision, the determination to stay the course, and lots of time and money.

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