“Change in inevitable. Change is constant” wrote Benjamin Disraeli. And more famously, Charles Darwin penned the now classic lines, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent… It is the one that is most adaptable to change”. And ‘Change Management’ is almost a field in its own right nowadays, with ISO standards, higher education and degree courses, specialist training consultancies – the lot.
It’s a shame about all those cheesy Pinterest Quotations, or the pseudo-motivational nonsense that does the rounds on LinkedIn, because change is fundamental – really fundamental (for alas, ‘fundamental’ is also a word over-used in these days of corporate claptrap). Ultimately, change is constant, and it’s described by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says – stay with me here – that any natural system effectively breaks down further and further, ultimately reaching (or attempting to reach) a steady state – or the highest state of entropy. A complex system – a building say, ultimately will become dust and dirt and component elements again if it isn’t nurtured. Living beings, ultimately die and are recycled. Change truly is inevitable – you cannot run and you cannot hide. So, as a brand marketeer we can only conclude that how brands are born, how they’re used, perceived, and finally how they die, is in fact, all to do with quantum physics. Don’t let anyone tell you that marketing isn’t science.
What the Second Law means for brands is that highly complex systems (brands) will undertake irreversible processes that will move them towards a state of higher entropy (counter-intuitively, this means simpler, more basic, more steady – in the course of time, more dead). Unlike pure natural systems though, the life path for brands, from creation to death, isn’t linear – witness the product life cycle. Through the intervention of sentient beings – us – we can influence and direct the life path of a brand. They will crumble back to dust eventually, but not without some fireworks and fancy dance moves wearing spangly dresses along the way.
The question therefore is how to respond to change. Effectively, what any brand stewards should be aiming to do during their tenure is to increase the complexity of the brand. To be clear, in no way does this mean to do complex stuff – but rather, broaden, strengthen and deepen the network of positive mental pathways and holloways in the target consumers’ brains. Create new sparks between those precious brand-related synapses in the old grey matter. Build, in effect, brand fortifications that can resist the denuding effect of time and other influences. To protect the brand ‘entropy’.
What’s important here is that a brand’s strategic response is not limited to one strategy or one set of options. It’s not limited to premiumisation. True, you’d be forgiven from thinking that it was given how often the term is mentioned in brand plans and around the planning table, but rather there’s a range of responses that are rooted in the brand’s current state and its desired future*. That relationship between past and future is the critical one: too often, in the rarefied and rather whiffy air of office political machinations, huge strategic leaps seem eminently possible: today’s commoditised brand is tomorrow’s luxury marque. That’s a real watch out: brands exist in the mind, and how far you can credibly move them from where they are now will be a large determinant of future success. The more established it is, the more effort, energy, money and time will be needed to shift it.
Broadly, there seem to be four primary tasks to protect a brand’s entropy:
Retain specialness: if the brand is positioned as premium but may be in risk of losing its sheen, then a specialness strategy is appropriate. Premiumise all the touchpoints; remind consumers of the underlying product truth; invest in a consistent experience. Give the brand a tune up, and a good spit and polish.
Retain distinctiveness: if your brand is a mainstream brand (you know, the sort of brand that consumers really like but the Board keep on banging on about premiumising the damn thing), then actually, your strategy is more likely need to focus on articulating distinctiveness. This could be from core brand values, from personality or tone of voice, from the central positioning or even from the insight that connects the audience to your brand. Whatever it is, you’ll need to find the hot spots and ensure that activity is built on something really interesting and compelling. Don’t try and please everyone.
Rebuild differentiation: commoditisation in increasingly common when we live in such tough competitive times. Commoditisation of course is very much a process of a change in entropy – it’s you feeling the effect of your brand being eroded. For everyday brands, that are struggling to balance their added value features in a competitive world, strategies should focus on your points of difference; squaring off your corners, proudly sticking out your shoulders and saying ‘look at me, here’s how I’m different, here’s how I’m better’. New product development can help here: reminding people about the difference at the heart of the brand family – even if that innovation is sacrificial to prompt core brand re-appraisal.
Retain cost or price advantage: it’s incredible how often a budget positioned brand is touted as tomorrow’s premium brand. And of course, it could happen, but frankly it’s unlikely unless consumers adopt and take it there themselves (Pabst Blue Riband, perhaps?). More realistic is to consider how a price advantage strategy can be leveraged to the brand’s advantage. What are the essential points of brand value that need to be bolted on and what is non-essential. This is not about being lowest cost, there’s own label for that, but it is about understanding what functions or services are the tie-breakers that a brand can offer better.
If your brand is faced with change – and it will be – don’t knee-jerk to premiumisation. Think about its current state today; where your target market actually map and it, and where it’s desirable, and possible, to move to. You may not be able to change the laws of Physics, but perhaps you can delay the inevitable by a few hundred years.
David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that finds the direct route to success for categories and brands. Want to know more, then just wing over an e mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or call on +44 (0) 1283 246260. You can follow The Crow Flies on Linked In (http://www.linkedin.com/company/the-crow-flies-ltd?trk=company_name), on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/thecrowfliesltd). Or just send a carrier pigeon and we’ll intercept mid-air. © The Crow Flies, 2017
*In fact, in a pleasant circularity, concepts such as past, present and future are also described by the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Effectively time is asymmetrical – what’s happened in the past cannot be reversed and everything will keep on trucking on until we reach a total steady state in the Universe (it is argued). I don’t think we’ll be worrying about premiumisation strategies too much then.