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Brandicide Expert Warns About Lost Opportunity

by Alf Nucifora

Jack Trout, former member of the famed "brand positioning" duo, Trout & Ries, has gone to the ramparts to issue a well-timed warning about the perils of lost leadership when it comes to the all-important issue of branding. Trout sees wanton failure everywhere and warns brand custodians to learn from the lessons being committed on a daily basis by one-time brand behemoths such as AT&T, Levi-Strauss and Kellogg's.

In his new book, "Big Brands, Big Trouble," Trout accuses brand owners and managers of committing brand misfeasance in a variety of unforgivable ways. He speaks of the trend to category commoditization, of the deleterious effects of price-driven strategies and with thinly disguised contempt, of CEO's who don't appreciate or value their brands and, instead, determine strategy based solely on the perceptions and dictates of Wall Street. Trout's biggest concern is the opportunity loss inherent in bad marketing decisions made today. "There's no longer room for error," says Trout. "Mistakes today are felt more deeply, and once the business is gone, it's lost forever."

When asked to comment on who's doing it right or wrong, Trout names Kodak as a brand that has failed miserably in its attempted migration to the digital marketplace. He cites Apple as nothing more than a pretender in a Wintel world, bemoans the irrevocable cheapening of the once-dominant and somewhat exclusive Revlon brand and wastes no time in slamming K-Mart for it's loss to Wal-Mart in the price positioning battle (long before the chain declared bankruptcy). Arthur Andersen, as a brand, will go the way of Firestone…headed toward oblivion. Clients and prospects will turn nervous, he says, and once that happens, a slow death is inevitable.

On the positive side, Trout likes what Tommy Hilfigger has done in positioning his product as designer clothing for everyman and justifiably praises Target for ably establishing it's no-name-attached "bulls eye" as "mass for class." If ever a brand had a strategy, and followed it diligently, Target has to be it.

"Big Brands, Big Trouble" is full of big blunders, nine common and costly mistakes that companies never cease to make. For example, Trout speaks of the "Me Too" mistake…companies believing that a quality product will prevail over the reigning market leader. Notes Trout, "Benchmarking doesn't work because regardless of a product's objective quality, people perceive the first brand to enter their mind as superior. When you're a me-too, you're a second-class citizen." He warns of the "What are you selling?" mistake observing that companies large and small often have a hard time describing their product, especially if it's a new category or technology. How else to explain the consumer-co-opted "hand held," for the industry-recommended PDA. Says Trout, "Customers need to know what a product is to even consider buying it."

Never loath to withhold blame, Trout, instead spreads it around with gusto. In his mind, the prime offenders in the brand sabotage game are the numbers people, the consultants, boards of directors and Wall Street influentials. Bad advice and earnings pressures, he maintains, have driven CEO's "to extend brands beyond customer needs…or even recognition." Hence the multiplicity of line extensions, ill-fated alliances and licensing deals that continue to destroy great names. That's why the supermarket cereal aisle reeks of confusion, gold credit cards have the cachet of a discounter's charge card and once-unassailable brands like Calvin Klein and Martha Stewart may become the contemporary versions of Halston and Pierre Cardin if they're not too careful.

Trout keeps his advice simple. Good marketers, he maintains, get a real handle on the competition. They know the enemy. And not the shallow intelligence that drives so much survey and focus group research. He demands the truthful stuff that a Warren Buffet would want to know before he decides to invest.

Then they know themselves. Smart brand custodians are masochists, always suffering the pain of brutal self-analysis. Strength and weakness assessments are the order of the day, and repeated in perpetuity. And, as always, the enemy is time. If the brand is in trouble, cut your losses and dump it or reconfigure it. It took Firestone too long to comprehend that the jig was up. Sears is staring into the same abyss as are Kodak and any number of big brands in big trouble. They never learned when to fold.

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