This classic column is featured in our book Building Blocks for your Brand, which focuses on core concepts of branding (such as brand equity) that apply to brands of all kinds. It includes our original published articles that have been featured in regional business journals, magazines, and international marketing publications.
The Six-blade Knife: Half a Dozen Ways to Kill Your Brand discusses common mistakes companies make that diminish their brand equity.
Most brands grow slowly, more like trees than flowers, yet they are susceptible to mistakes that can stunt their growth, or even damage them beyond repair. While many companies are busy running the rest of their business, they lose track of what’s happening to the brand they built from the ground up. All good brands require regular maintenance to avoid losing their equity and their power with the customer. Here are a few common mistakes to avoid.
Reducing your brand name to initials: Yeah, yeah, everybody calls you by your initials anyway. And maybe your name is too long (Studies show that 3-4 syllables is ideal). But even if you are right, your next prospect doesn’t know you that well. Initials-based names have no intrinsic meaning and can be easily confused with the same initials from other fields. (Google “TLC” to see what I mean.) But wait, didn’t IBM do fairly well with their change from International Business Machines? Yes, with a media budget in the tens of millions per year, they pulled it off. With that kind of money, you can break a lot of rules. A more recent example is PepsiCo switching Gatorade to the letter “G.” Sales were down 13% in 2009 according to Beverage Digest, while its chief rival, PowerAid, lost only 2%.
Introducing products that clash with the brand: Everybody wants growth and the pressure to add products or services is enormous. But you don’t see Rolex trying to compete with Timex in the $50 sport watch segment. A few years ago, in an effort to expand their lunch business, Boston Market introduced their Carver sandwiches with some success, but then saw their dinner business begin to slip. The problem? Research showed their customers considered them a hearty dinner option, but not a quick sandwich shop. Sometimes a sub-brand strategy can be a solution, as the lower-priced Seattle’s Best is for Starbucks, but it can take a lot more resources to build a separate brand.
Imitating your largest competitor: It may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s a weak brand strategy. Using similar sounding names, colors, or graphics (within established legal boundaries) is likely to help reinforce your competitor’s brand, and will not create a good sense of differentiation. The reality is you don’t want your brand to be like your competition; you want it to be unlike them.
Asking your customers the easy questions only: Yes, you’re listening to your customers. Your company conducts satisfaction studies like clockwork. But are you asking all the right questions? Henry Ford’s famous line “If I had given my customers what they asked for, I’d be making faster horses,” applies here. To understand their customers better, The Weather Channel once told a group of regular viewers that they had invented a method of predicting major storms up to 30 days in advance, just to see what they would say. The response was surprising: They hated it. Their viewers loved the drama of big storms and following their development in real time. Oddly enough, predictability was not what really made them watch.
Talking only to your loyal customers: Yes, they’re important, but your next new customer isn’t a loyalist yet. A technique to understand your brand better is to study only non-users of your product or service. Get ready for a cold shower, but you could end up learning more from people who are loyal to other brands than from your most loyal users who only tell you what you want to hear or already know.
Assuming what works for one segment will work for all: When Colgate Palmolive took their Ariel brand floor cleaner and wax to Latin America it didn’t sell. They finally took a closer look at the market and discovered that Latin housewives typically cleaned their kitchen floors every day. They didn’t need super cleaning power, they wanted a fresh scent and a shiny floor. So Ariel was re-introduced with less stripping action and a series of different scents. Sales grew dramatically.
Your brand lives principally in the minds of your customers and prospects, but that doesn’t mean you can assume their perceptions never change. As the day-to-day pace of running your business carries you along, be careful to avoid these mistakes, or be prepared to see your brand suffer a slow decline. While a good brand can survive most of the above problems, the best brands invest heavily in keeping their message current, different, and easy to understand.