Brand Strategy

Break the Stranglehold of the Status Quo

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Bill Winchester


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What I’m about to say may shock you coming from someone whose job it is to jumpstart brands: If you’re reigniting a brand you will probably fail. According to the Harvard Business Review, 80% of brands launched die and only 8% of those attempt to rejuvenate.

Why? The status quo is nearly impossible to fight. People hate change. It’s not just an uphill battle, it’s an uphill battle in slippery mud with rocks being tossed down at you and wild, crazy, rabid animals coming out of the woods and eating your shoes.

The question is, why? Why is it so damn hard to ignite a brand? The answer is there are three big things working against you.

The first is fear. I’ve tried to scare you away. I’ve warned you. And I’m willing to bet I’m not the first. Face it. You’re afraid. The status quo is safe and cozy and cuddly like a warm blanket”¦that’s strangling you.

The second is human nature. People don’t like to change. They like to come to work at the same time. They like to know the dress code. They like to do the same things they were doing. Doubt me? Change the soda in the soda machine. It will take you at least two months to quell the anarchy.  And that’s just the people who work for you.

Consumers hate change as well. According to Jack Trout, American families repeatedly buy the same 150 items and those constitute 85% of their needs. They hate change even when they know in their collective guts that your product or service may be better.  In other words, they love, love, love the status quo.

The third is binders. Yes, binders are the hobgoblin of brand jumpstarts. (Keep your Romney jokes to yourself.) “Whaaaa???” you say. Think about this scenario and tell me it doesn’t happen: You do a ton of brand research; you have scatter charts, focus groups, etc. etc. It’s all condensed into a neat little pile that’s called the new “Brand Bible.” It comes in a neat but uninspiring little binder.  No one really understands it other than it’s a bunch of words on a bunch of pages with a new tagline and some ishkabibble about what the brand means blah, blah, blah.

It gets talked about for about three days, shoved on a shelf and everyone goes back to, you guessed it”¦the status quo.

The binder problem boils down to relevance. The consumer never sees it and so it never makes the brand really come to life. In the words of Robert Brunner and Stewart Emery in How great design will make people love your company;  “”¦have you made your company matter to people? Are you a positive force in their lives? If you disappeared would they care?” And honestly, most of the time the changes companies are willing to make to reignite a brand aren’t enough to really matter to the consumer.

Of course, by now, if you’re still with me, you’re saying, “Cripes, that’s a downer, you’ve said ‘status quo’ like, 100 times, I get it, what’s the answer?”

If you hope to succeed (and I’m rooting for you, I really am) the answer is creating emotion. Emotion breaks the stranglehold of the status quo because emotion creates charisma and charismatic brands command a 40% premium.

And the most effective path to creating emotion is design.

I’m not talking about designing a neat new logo or website, or even redesigning the product, although these are all good things to do. I’m not talking about just physical objects. I’m talking about designing the sum total emotional experience people have with your brand. Only by getting down into the very DNA of the experience and creating something dramatically new can you actually change the way people feel about your brand. You need to make them feel there is a change. And unless you change the way people feel, you’re just feeding the status quo.

First, start by thinking of your brand as a portal. Great brands are like walking into a new world that is something either thrillingly different or incredibly soothing. They represent an ideal, a better place. Incredibly different? Unless you live in a Mies Van Der Rohe house, the Apple experience is thrillingly different from your everyday world. It represents the ideal future. Prefer soothingly familiar? Think Starbucks. It’s like Cheers without the liquor (hint to Starbucks, one word: liquor). Starbucks has created the ideal everyday experience.

If you start by thinking of the ideal experience your brand can provide, you can begin to diagram what you have to design to make that happen. Everything in the design chain is there to tell the ideal brand story.

Of course, this all takes a certain kind of thinking and approach and that is where you have to think like a designer. Obviously, in a blog, I’m not going to turn your company around, but here are some ways to start:

  1. Don’t do anything until you have to have top management behind you and even then you’ll probably be fired. Look at JC Penney. Geez, sorry, I know it’s a bummer but in this business you should always have your resume in order anyway.
  2. Be an iconoclast. Some of the best and most successful brands are headed up by iconoclastic leaders and because iconoclasts are better at ignoring fear and great design is, by nature, fearless. When you’re in the middle of reviving a brand you’re facing a lot of new and novel situations. In his book, Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Like an Iconoclast, Gregory Burns, PhD  says,  “The problem with novelty is that, for most people, novelty triggers fear”¦fear of uncertainty and fear of public ridicule are the two biggest impediments to iconoclastic thinking.” So, I guess that means, well, you have to grow a pair. Ladies, too.
  3. On that note, you have to realize the design process is about risk-taking, Robert Brunner says, “If great design resided in research, there would be a lot more great design.” Most companies think that there’s some magic oracle in the research. There isn’t. Not that you shouldn’t do research, but the right kind of research involves more than surveys it involves observation. David Kelley of IDEO describes successful experience design starting with the process of observation. Imagine you’re an airline and then think about redesigning that experience. There are about 12 things involved with the venture before you even get to the actual plane ride. If you observed the entire process you have a better idea of where an airline brand could make it itself matter to people. Using observation as a research tool makes it easier to make the creative leaps necessary for great design, but be aware, there will still be a leap into the unknown.
  4. The risk, and thus the fear are mitigated slightly when you realize design is an iterative process. Express”“Test”“Cycle. How quickly you prototype is directly proportional to the success of the experience design. David Kelley calls this “Enlightened trial and error.” Observe, make a version, get input from consumers, observe, change the design and start over. Most companies fail at this because they simply don’t move fast enough. They place too high a price on failure. In the world of experience design, make prototypes of every part of the brand experience. They don’t have to be finished, just get them in front of people to get reactions. Look for emotional cues, how people feel is more important than what people say. Body language, facial expressions and overall enthusiasm are more important that questionnaires. And let’s face it sometimes you know in your gut it’s right, then run with it. That “pair” you grew will come in handy.
  5. If you move fast you can address the fact that people hate change by burning the bridge as you cross it. It’s Blitzkrieg branding. Changing so many things, so fast that people can’t go back. The status quo simply isn’t an option.
  6. There is an experience supply chain. It starts with the earliest exposure to your brand.  That chain needs to be defined, led, staffed and watched constantly to make sure it’s as good as it can be. It includes everything, from product design, store design, customer experience, signage, post-purchase experience and nearly everything else you can think of.  It needs to look right and feel consistent. It includes all the senses. What people see, feel, touch, smell are all important and great starting points to think about your brand’s experience.
  7. The experience supply chain isn’t contained in a binder, it’s contained in the DNA of your company. Consider the brand experience your employees have.  The same question that applies to consumers applies to your staff: Do you matter to them beyond a paycheck?  Are they cheering for you? People feel best about the place they work when they feel they’re making a difference. Forbes has a pretty nice short article that may help.
  8. So, eschew binders that contain a gaggle of charts and graphs and meaningless research that are erroneously named “Brand Bibles.” Instead, make the brand bible an emotional experience that is an embodiment of the brand itself. There are some really nice examples of brands empowering their employees. You’ll recognize these as brands that matter and that is a testament in itself. Of course, these are still, in essence, fancy binders. Consider creating something more emotional. A movie, a video or even an entire physical experience can help people see, feel, smell and taste the brand experience. When brand matters to your own people, they are more equipped to make it matter to the consumer.

Breaking the stranglehold of the status quo isn’t easy. Like I said, you’ll probably fail, but if you can banish fear long enough to create a brand that really matters to your employees and customers, you’ll have done something impressive and important. Make them cheer for you. I certainly am.  Now go try and get yourself fired.

Bill Winchester


Has actually won a bagpiping contest.

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