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Beware Brand Death By A Thousand Cuts

by Alf Nucifora

The life and health of brands continue to intrigue me. I can’t help but exhibit a professional as well as voyeuristic interest in well known brands going through their final death throes. What really surprises is that there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of these candidates for the graveyard including those with established legacy and a history of heavy marketing investment on their side. Incidentally, we’re not talking about those brands that have suffered a self-inflected gunshot wound to the head (think Arthur Andersen) but instead, the type that have experienced a slow, almost imperceptible wasting-away over time.

The Signs and Symptoms

A study of brand dynamics shows that there are a number of common warning signals that telegraph the approaching, irreversible demise of a brand. Once infected, the patient sinks into an ever-worsening spiral which no amount of intensive care can arrest. Illness begets more serious illness until the patient ultimately dies.

Staff turns nasty: We saw this most plainly in the demise of Eastern and PanAm. Strained labor relations, exacerbated by a management mindset that is focused almost exclusively on economic survival, results in ever-worsening internal morale. Employees understandably obsess about their own well-being, lose faith in the company and turn surly, uncaring and cynical in the process. Their disdain for their livelihood clearly shows.  The customer inevitably suffers in the process and elects to flee the brand. Why stay in a relationship where one is no longer appreciated or wanted?

Company Turns Inward: From management’s perspective, life is a constant battle for survival. Rearguard actions are the order of the day. The company’s attention turns inward and as the eye comes off the ball, the external focus is lost. Customer service turns lousy and established customer relationships begin to fray or come apart. Competition smells blood. Now it’s just a countdown to the end. Paging K-Mart, Sears, Radio Shack!

Stale Prevails: Brands on the decline reek of obsolescence. Innovation and freshness disappear from the business strategy and the quick fix becomes an operating necessity. This inability to reinvent, results in a staleness of perception and a lack of buzz.  For more information on the subject, contact Oldsmobile.

Confusion Reigns: Inevitably the dying brand has walked away from its original mission in life. The image in the consumer’s mind is one of confusion and the brand threshold is no longer clearly defined or instinctively grasped. Logos, graphics, colors, theme lines, ad campaigns, pricing strategies, etc. are changed with the same regularity as underwear. Holiday Inn and Burger King!

Where’s the Benefit? The consumer changed but the brand failed to notice. Positioning, product attributes, communication message remain rooted in a belief about the customer that is at best behind the times, and at worst, obsolete. How else to explain the traditional menus of most fast food chains that continue to deny the growing desire on the part of a large consumer segment for a fast food product that tastes good without damaging the body. Why did it take Kodak so long to wake up to the inevitable potential of digital photography and the growing vulnerability of its traditional line?

Stand for Something: Great brands maintain an unquestioned belief in the “rightness” of their culture as a company (as well as a product or brand). All decisions, particularly those originating in the marketing department, are benchmarked against a philosophy that has been clearly articulated over time and practiced with religious fervor. Everyone knows what the company/brand stands for. No exceptions, no dispensations, no corners cut. It’s why you can always rely upon a Honda product, whether it’s an automobile, a generator, a lawnmower or a marine engine. The brand is driven by one inviolable imperative…quality always comes first.

As marketers and consumers we should always be aware of our brand surroundings. Where does the danger lie? Who’s going to get it next? This writer sees danger lurking around the corner for a growing list of candidates. A sampling includes most mainstream department stores, Buick (Tiger Woods notwithstanding), PBS public television, the Catholic Church in the U.S., not to mention easy candidates like Miller Beer. In addition, some of today’s most successful and accorded brands (e.g., Ford, Starbucks, Coca-Cola, Saturn and The Gap) would be well advised to consider that brand longevity is never a given. And finally kudos to a handful that got the message in time, and got it right…Las Vegas and New York City, not to mention Target and Cadillac. You see, it can be done.

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