As marketers, we all understand the power of a brand. How a great brand crystallizes meaning in the minds of consumers or business buyers. How it signals relevance around a very specific promise. How successful brands can charge more, reach further and extend easily into new categories.
But no one talks about when brands go bad. When your own brand turns against you and starts to stand for the wrong things – in fact for the very things your target customers don’t want.
These are anti-brands and they suffer a bitterly ironic fate, as all the marketing forces that made them famous are now working against them, forcing them out of their own markets.
Brands like these still look like the happy, cheerful brands they always wanted to be. But in reality, they’re like Frankenstein’s monster. They’re zombie brands that have crawled inside the colourful logos and eaten them from the inside.
Some of these brands are now dead (Woolworths, Kodak). Others still walk among us, with Xs for eyes. Others have just let the zombie monster in and have a while to go.
They’re still sending clear, bright signals out into the minds of consumers. But the messages are the exact opposite to the ones they want to send. They say, “Don’t come near. We’re not what you want.”
Standing For Things No-One Wants
It happens to good brands that once had a single-minded purpose. They once stood for something – and they still do. But what they stand for are things people no longer want.
Kodak used to mean ‘memories (preserved on film)’. And it still does. But the world changed.
Today, we want instant images that are more about celebrating and sharing the moment. And film is just so 1890s.
No doubt Kodak did see this coming. They should have – the change took more than a decade – but they were too busy preserving memories for their film-buying customers to pivot in time.
Part of the problem is the classic Innovator’s Dilemma, as identified by Clayton Christensen. Kodak kept serving the same film buyers they’d always served – because these are the people they met every day. They might have noticed they were getting older and fewer – but they didn’t. And now, Kodak means ‘A brand from history.’ The brand turned against itself.
All that pent-up symbol-power that makes brands so powerful turned negative. And they couldn’t stop it.
It would be much, much easier to start a new brand than to try to re-program everybody’s brains to understand that Kodak now means something else (batteries, digital cameras, storage media...). The zombie got them.
It’s happening to brands right now. The motorway service brands that now scream “Keep driving”. The banks that say “Customers are an afterthought”.
When you look at a lot of Anti-Brands together, you start to see a pattern: failure to embrace a new value that’s emerging in the public mind.
Almost all of today’s Anti-Brands became successful and famous before the Age of Customer Experience. Before people came to expect a certain level of treatment from everyone they gave money to. No matter how little money and no matter what category.
And as customer experience rises higher and higher on the consumer agenda, these brands suffer. By locking their brand to something other than customer experience, they are locking themselves out of the markets they once dominated (or at least earned sustaining market share in).
Past generations may have seen a similar pattern but on a different dimension than customer experience. In the fifties, affordable quality started to trump all other brand values. The brands that were built before that era, nailing their colours to different masts, suffered and died.
When great customer experience becomes the price of entry in every market and ceases to be a differentiator, things will move on. And new Anti-Brands will be created, just as shiny new power-brands emerge around the new value.
What do you do if you suspect you’ve got an anti-brand on your hands?
Call it early. Spot the emerging value and pivot while you still can. Remember, Apple was once an Anti-Brand that had lost all relevance.
If you’re too late, think about a re-brand or spinning off a new one.
If it’s even too late for that… call in the receivers. You’re dead but you just don’t know it yet.