‘Not right for the brand’ doesn’t always mean wrong for the brand. It just means there are no ‘sacred cows’ left

Just because a brand embarked on one path in the past, writes Jon Austin, doesn't mean it should stay on that path in the future.

Running a brand must be hard.

That may sound facetious, but it’s not. To take what has been built before you, what has done amazing things, what has achieved success, and then be KPI-ed on continuing or improving that trajectory into uncharted territory? That’s tough. That’s scary. It’s like driving your great grandparents’ mint condition Chevy Bel Air – a car that your dad and his dad before him drove – along a pitch-black country road, with no headlights, hoping you don’t fly off a cliff.

No wonder we’re hesitant to veer into uncharted territory.

No wonder we’re quick to hit the brakes instead of the accelerator.

No wonder we all too quickly label twists and turns that feel unfamiliar, ‘not right for the brand’.

An unfamiliar journey doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the wrong one

And I get it. Because the tangible measures that make something ‘right for the brand’ are hard to turn away from. It was right for the brand yesterday. It was right for the brand the day before. It’s been right for the category for decades. So who are we to argue? And if we’re not doing stuff that feels right for the brand, we’re doing stuff that, by definition, feels wrong for it. And that’s just bonkers, right?

But is it really that binary?

Does ‘not right’ always equal wrong?

I’m not so sure.

At worst, I fear that sometimes ‘not right for the brand’ has become a comfortable shorthand for ‘too scary for those running the brand’, ‘too hard for those running the brand’, or ‘too unknown for those running the brand’. We say it when we hear something we weren’t expecting; when we’re confronted with something that doesn’t feel like what has come before.

Fair enough.

But in an increasingly cluttered environment, where consumers could happily do away with 77% of all brands without blinking, where people expect more and more of the companies selling to them, where cutting through in less time and less budget is a regular objective, is sticking to the same old always the right attitude to take?

Let’s look at the context in which brands are operating. We happily accept the notion that the world in which we exist is rapidly changing. According to McKinsey, “change is the dominant fact of life in every business today” and “this is particularly true in marketing, where the very tempo of change is constantly quickening.” But, despite this, we often view brands as fixed objects made up of fixed elements for a fixed audience.

Unwavering brand consistency and always doing what feels ‘right for the brand’ makes total sense when you have a loyal and devoted audience that keeps coming back, over and over, expecting the exact same thing to be there to greet them. But brand loyalty is declining faster than you can say, “I bloody love my Nokia 8810”.

Consumers are increasingly asking ‘why?’

Consider that, right now, 73% of consumers would kick a brand to the curb for no other reason than to simply try a shiny new one. So, if audiences aren’t sticking around for long enough to find comfort in the same old, who are we staying the same old for, exactly?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not naïve enough to believe that marketing alone can stem the flow of haemorrhaging customer loyalty. That’s an arterial spurt requiring top down, organisational change. But if people are finding new reasons to leave, surely we should be giving them new reasons to stay.

Here’s a wild thought. Perhaps when it comes to building brands, there are no sacred cows anymore. None.

If tone was sacred, Old Spice would have never created ‘Smell Like A Man, Man’, which increased sales by 125%, and spawned approximately four billion clone campaigns.

If category was sacred, Libresse would have never created Blood Normal and jumped from a 37% social share of voice to 90%.

If the customer was sacred, Nike would have never used Colin Kaepernick to intentionally alienate a huge portion of their audience, and increase their brand value by $26.2bn.

If brand marks and brand assets were sacred, Mastercard and Starbucks wouldn’t have ditched their name from their logos. Hell, Doritos – a category leader – launched its ‘Next Level’ campaign without a single logo or packshot.

And, if ever we needed incontrovertible proof there are no sacred cows left, let’s look at the fact that Burger King just slayed its biggest one – appetite appeal – flame-grilled it, let it go moldy in front of our eyes, and we still gobbled it up. According to YouGov research of more than 2,000 consumers, following the Moldy Whopper campaign, “consideration to visitation” rates for Burger King increased by 22.8%.

Maybe, just maybe, in this increasingly transient landscape, you can build a brand on stuff more malleable than the traditional building blocks we consider ‘set in stone’.

Maybe ‘not right for the brand’ needs to be properly interrogated before we equate it to being wrong for the brand.

Sure, there’ll be plenty of times when not right for the brand is genuinely not right for the brand. And that’s cool.

But sometimes, even when you’re driving great grandad’s mint condition Chevy Bel Air, you need to think twice before pumping the brakes.

Because maybe, just maybe, ‘not right for the brand’ is exactly what the brand needs.

Jon Austin is the ECD of Host/Havas Australia


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