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Beware the Subtle Signs of Brand Decay

by Alf Nucifora

A recent flight on an airliner carrying the flag of one of the Big Three reinforced the notion of brand fragility. Here is a brand very clearly in decline (as the dismal state of its finances will confirm). The proof was in the experience. The bathrooms were battered and tattered, revealing the wear and tear of a punishing life in the air without any sign of refurbishment or update. A chunk of seat-trim came apart in my seatmate's hand. The gate agent at the city of departure wore a dirty, un-ironed shirt, open at the collar with tie loosened.

At a recent hotel stay, again at one of the major flags, the bathroom mold (a particular pet peeve of mine) had taken over the shower stall, much as Kudzu coats the southern terrain. A recent visit to the optometrist left me in an equally uneasy state. Diagnostic equipment was coated with dust; fingerprints and smudge marks; the residue of many prior patient exams indicated that hygiene and sterile field were not priorities.

As a weary road warrior who is constantly in and out of cities, the overt signs and signals tell much about the status of the brand, in this case the city itself. Have they got the graffiti under control (as Guiliani did, in New York)? Are the sidewalks spotless (as Daly made them, in Chicago)? Is the panhandling under control (as it's not, in Atlanta)? Have the homeless commandeered the streets (as they have, in San Francisco)?

These experiences and observations attest to the fact that healthy brands possess curb appeal. In fact, their custodians invest heavily to craft that very image. Conversely, failing brands cast off an aura of lethargy and "I don't care." The decay is a gradual process. For those old enough to remember, the decline of once great names like Pan Am, K-Mart and Miller Beer happened over time, not overnight. In policing circles, it's known as the "broken windows" theory. A broken pane, left un-repaired is the first indication that nobody cares, which leads to more broken windows, graffiti on the walls, littered sidewalks, abandoned buildings and ultimately in a neighborhood which surrenders to neglect, crime and decline. The simple act of repairing the window communicates to the world that somebody cares. And sometimes that can be enough to protect the turf.

The lessons for every marketer, who carries a "defender of the brand" responsibility, are clear and precise:

  • Much of a brand's threshold appeal is tied to providing superior customer service. Every customer "touch" must end in a flawless transaction where the buyer departs the experience with a more favorable, reinforced opinion of the brand than when he/she entered.
  • Brand protection requires eternal vigilance. There should be a radar-like sweeping of the horizon to check for weakness, failure, and the first sign of break-down. And, it's a monitoring task that must be constantly reinforced among the troops by a management that leads by example and practices what it preaches. That's why I have nothing but respect for the corporate CEO who lives on the road, calling on customers and mingling with the troops.
  • A thriving brand remains fresh. It's always signaling experimentation and change for the better. As an example, the product line never grows stale; the web site is refreshed by the day, if not the hour; communications with the consumer are always current, relevant and on-going.
  • There is always some one at the top who understands the value of the brand, not just for its implied impact on the balance sheet, but as a pylon for anchoring continued growth and success. The leader in question is passionate about the brand, and articulates that fanaticism with a ferocity that every employee feels (and is motivated to share).
  • Well-managed brands are repetitively exposed to the "customer eye-ball" test. The process is nothing more than viewing the interaction between brand and consumer through a customer's eyes. And, that's a literal process. The smarter brandmeisters employ mystery shoppers/buyers to run the gauntlet and report back. They do this, not once or twice, but habitually. They consider it preventative maintenance.

Every marketer must understand the jaded nature of today's buyer and the cynicism of the marketplace. The American consumer landscape is at a point where most buyers avoid brand confrontation. Why argue and fight when there is a wide array of competitive choices just around the corner? It's easier to take one's money elsewhere, agitation be damned. Ditto with marginal experiences. We file away in our minds the decrepit bathrooms, the moldy shower stalls, and the unsanitary doctor's offices. In some cases, the decision is immediate - we will never return. But, ultimately we succumb to that which promises the expectation of something fresh and exciting. How else to explain JetBlue, Target and Bud Lite.

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