June 7th, 2012
Should brands die?
The strange world of strategy involves discussions about how to “humanize a brand” and debates about whether a brand is more Ellen DeGeneres or Ryan Seacrest (true story) Over the top language rant aside, we do treat brands a lot like people. Which got me thinking…humans die, so why not brands?
An argument for the mortality of brands:
1. It has become common knowledge (at least among marketers) that brands are entities made up of people’s perceptions and experiences, not just the actual product or service or logo. Cool. Accepted.
2. Because of this realization, marketers have begun to treat brands more like people. A brand has a personality, a style, a unique way of speaking and acting. There is an entire discipline — brand planning — centered around figuring out exactly what makes up a brand’s identity and how to keep it consistent (or when not to) over time.
3. This conversation about personifying brands has been elevated to an even higher level: brand purpose. A sense of purpose paired with the ability to successfully express that purpose is the common thread between all the world’s most notable figures. Look at Walt Disney, Adolf Hitler, Martin Luther King Jr. So brands who have a mission, a passion, a goal, a reason to live that is inspiring or even just entertaining are the brands that resonate most strongly with people.
4. More and more we are seeing brands tell the story of their purpose and their personality just like a person does — random thoughts on Twitter, pictures on Instagram, and even by using other brands to say something about who they are.
None of that is news. But it’s an evolution in thinking about brands that led me to this thought:
If brands work best when we treat them like people, why do we insist on trying to make them immortal?
People grow up. They change in hundreds of ways throughout their lives and stay stubbornly the same just as many times. They mature. And they die. But brands… well, brands do most of those things. Except when it comes to the end, they tend to hold on for dear life.
Models like Gartner’s Hype Cycle, BCG’s quadrant and various other product life cycles have proven that there is a pattern very similar to biology — introduction, growth, maturity and decline. But instead of ending in death as science would have it, marketers have an almost religious belief in reincarnation. The majority of briefs I have gotten in my career so far have had some aspect of “reinvigoration” or “make X cool again.”
I do believe that maturity can be extended. For a long time. A brand’s purpose can evolve. Look at Apple.
I also believe that reinvention is possible. Brands can keep some aspects of their DNA but do something innovative enough to kickstart the life cycle all over again. Look at Old Spice.
Apologies for using the same old examples, but they are what they are for a reason. Actual, honest-to-goodness extensions and reinventions of the brand life cycle happen so rarely that we only have a handful of case studies to point to (despite award submissions entries that say otherwise).
Which is why killing brands should be an option. Brands are not tangible. Killing them does not necessarily mean shutting down a company, laying people off or halting manufacturing. Simply think about throwing away the imaginary stuff — the persona of the brand. Rather than redesigning the logo because sales are down, consider letting brands die once their purpose has been filled. Most people would be lucky to die knowing they had found their purpose and completed it.
Let’s start thinking about letting brands rest in peace.
Assuming you’ve gotten to this point and you’re ready to go out murder marketing all over the place, there are two more things to think about.
1: Figure out when it’s time for a brand to die.
Part instinct: A brand’s life span can be as short as a dog’s or even longer than a human’s depending on that brand’s purpose and how it plays out in society. Most brands are around long enough to draw conclusions from how they’ve evolved within culture. It’s possible that someone with an anthropological mindset and maybe a little bit of retrospect can gutturally identify when a brand has recently peaked.
Part planning: Pair the natural pop culture analysis, pattern recognition and trend spotting abilities that many planners have with some sales data and competitive plans, and Doomsday begins to find it’s spot on the calendar. In fact, a brand’s death might even be something that is planned for from the start. Popular modern day marketing book Zag proposes that marketers should write a brand’s obituary. It makes sense: a thoughtful brand has a defined purpose and a somewhat set path to achieve it. There should theoretically be a point when that “self-actualized” brand can look back on a life well led and pass away.
2: Figure out how to successfully kill a brand.
Does it go peacefully in its sleep after a nice, long retirement?
Does it slip quietly into the night, never to be seen again?
Or is it a public execution, complete with a countdown before the website implodes?
There is fun to be had in having the guts to admit that brands can be mortal. And sales to be had as well. Scarcity often sparks higher demand and therefore higher price points. The unparalleled nostalgia and love for Pan Am, Marshall Fields and Polaroid (even by people who didn’t grow up with those brands!) could be created by a death that was purposeful rather than circumstantial.
Plus, brand zombies. Think about it.