reposition? just do it

I’m working on two big and juicy brand repositioning projects.  While both involve quite significant departures from the companies’ current strategies and it’s still pretty early on in the projects, it’s likely one is going to be successful and the other, not, or at least less so. I thought the reason for the difference between the two would make for a good post.arrows

Essentially both companies are suffering from poor sales performance and little reason to expect recoveries without making big changes.  For each brand we’ve identified new spaces in the competitive landscape which hold the potential to not only stabilize the businesses but also to unleash new growth.

But both companies have long heritages and have experienced successes in the past, so they suffer from organizational cultures which are somewhat resistant to change.  And both enjoy broad awareness and loyalty among core groups of customers who like the brands the way they are.

So, both are looking at taking on significant risks by repositioning – quite literally betting their businesses that it’s a smart move.

The difference is that one company is going to move forward and the other is only going to sort-of change.  That is, one company is assessing the risks and requirements of the repositioning and is choosing to do it, while the other is getting cold feet and will probably end up trying to straddle between its old and new positions, leaving itself in a kind of no-man’s brand-land.

On many levels, I understand the latter’s ambivalence.  Making such a dramatic change usually means being willing to lose a significant amount of business in the short-term with the expectation that you may potentially reap greater returns in the long run – a stance which investors and Boards tend not to reward.  It also requires considerable investment at a time when cutting costs and managing cash flows are the priority.

But when you recognize that doing the same thing quarter after quarter and expecting a different result is indeed the definition of insanity, not only does a new brand strategy make sense, it becomes imperative.  Plus the business may not be deteriorating so dramatically that it’s considered a burning platform which must be abandoned immediately, but the ultimate destiny of a slow steady decline is nonetheless the same.

So at some point, the company leadership must decide that taking on such a risk is the right thing to do and so they’re going to do it.  At that point they are in fact deciding to “do it anyway” and to “do it well.”

do it anyway

It’s likely that a decision to reposition will contradict learning from consumer research. That’s because getting consumer input on a brand repositioning is tricky – particularly if the brand is well-known and brand perceptions are generally neutral to positive.

If you use traditional concept testing methods, consumers are likely to reject the new brand.  It’s human nature to resist change – and people are hardwired to dislike something if it causes cognitive dissonance (the mental state that can result when new knowledge conflicts with existing knowledge.)

Repositioning is all about changing people’s minds. Changing the minds of current customers who know they brand and accept its current state is difficult.  The most frequent, loyal customers are the most resistant to change – but if they’re not generating enough sales and profits to keep the business growing, they probably shouldn’t be the priority. Changing the minds of folks who have rejected the brand usually depends on the execution of the concept (see my next point below – “do it well.”)

So, asking consumers about the appropriateness of a brand change is generally not helpful.  Instead of assessing brand fit of the new concept, evaluate its unbranded appeal – and then explore how the company might make the concept believable for its brand.

Armed with these insights, the company can determine whether or not the appeal of the concept is strong enough and whether or not they are willing and able to do what it takes to make the concept believable.  If the answers are yes, then they can move forward understanding the consumer risks, but “doing it anyway.”

do it well

Equally if not more important than the decision to proceed with the repositioning is the commitment to executing it fully.  That means, not simply changing the logo, image, and messaging, but driving the new brand strategy through everything the company does.   It must be willing to re-think everything and align its entire operations with the new direction.

It also means not doing it half-assed.  The company needs to decide — either execute the heck out of its current positioning and adjust its growth expectations accordingly OR reject it in favor of a new direction and pursue that with abandon.

I realize this sounds unrealistic and perhaps naïve – designating priorities and hedging bets are the stuff of business after all.  But in the case of brand strategy, trying to embody two positionings almost always results in a weaker competitive position.  And it’s usually a more expensive and more complex undertaking.  At a time when the company is already struggling, it just doesn’t make sense to pick a middle ground.

Certainly the repositioning must be tested – whether in prototypes or virtual reality or in live markets in a limited geography or designated segment or channel – and refined over time.  But once the new direction is set, the company needs to either pursue it or cut bait.

By neither embracing its core, limited niche nor shifting to a new, more broadly appealing identity, I fear my client will try to be all things to all people and end up being nothing to no one.   The company is likely to remain directionless and continue to struggle.

Believe me, I’m trying to prevent this from happening – I want them to succeed as much as they do – and I haven’t given up hope yet.  But at the very least, I thought I’d share this tale of two repositionings in the hopes we can all learn something from this.

related post:  a tale of two re-brands

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