Mapping a route for uncertain times

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How do you brand in uncertain times? Stamina is not the answer. In this uncertain environment, it's not a matter of peddling faster. Nor is it a matter of sticking your head in the sand and hoping things will be back to normal in the morning. It's getting off whatever it is you're riding, looking at the route you've been following and considering another road altogether.

It may be a road a lot less comfortable than you'd consider in normal times. But these aren't normal times, and comfort is not an option if success, or even survival, is in a marketer's plans.

The operative word in brand management must be change. You can be sure the competition hasn't called it quits. Stay the course and you'll be caught more than a little late to the finish line. I'm not talking about change as in cost cutting. Budgets cut 20% are going to have an impact on customers far greater than 20%. I'm talking change as in direction. Strategically managing and maneuvering the brand in a different way with a different outlook.

Even in the best of times, keeping loyal customers takes work, although the challenge can be eased by ample resources. Brands always compete in a context where customers demonstrate anything from a high degree of trust to absolute cynicism. Where there is high disposition to trust and plenty of cash, no problem. An uncertain environment, potential for fear, cynicism and limited cash-therein lies the challenge.

How does a marketer meet it? Recognize that change always entails risk and tough decisions. The courage to honestly assess strengths and weaknesses, and to innovate and refocus.

Challenge yourself to answer four questions-without excuses.

* Has the brand promise gotten fuzzy?

Is it really still delivering the benefits customers signed up for? It may be time to zero-base the brand strategy so it's as crisp and clear and as lean as possible. Make sure you know exactly what actions and activities are on-brand, and which are off. You cannot afford to be off-brand for even a nanosecond. Cynicism is insidious.

Take a good look at the brand's relevance, given the space you inhabit, the market in general and what's going on in the world. A brand is a combination of promise and price-all adding up to value. Make sure the brand has a believable balance, given customers' preferences, and given what the competition is offering.

* Have you been paying heed to the brand's not-so-secret admirers?

This is the time to insure that the brand's most ardent loyalists are well-tended. Take the time and trouble to get more intimate with the brand's best customers. It's not the time for net fishing. Access to data has never been more plentiful. Use it to your advantage to find out what really matters and who really matters. Doting on a brand's most valuable customers is almost recession-proof, and it's six to seven times cheaper than marketing to new users (not inconsequential when looking for more bang from the buck).

* Are you still using a surround-sound system?

As much as 360-degree branding makes great sense in theory, you simply can't afford it now. You need to leverage and create impact with only the most powerful, most effective touch points.

Take a good look at where the brand's best customers are connecting with it-what we call "Power Apps." You can't afford to "paint the world" anymore. Instead, you need to focus attention on the brand's sweet spots. The fact is not every point of customer contact has the same horsepower. Figure out which points of customer touch really drive brand perception and drive them home. Whether it's your advertising, your product design, your packaging, your customer service or promotions. With Power Apps, precision counts.

* Have you done any spring cleaning of your brand portfolio?

Take out the DustBuster. It may be the right time to assess your family of brands, your hierarchy, sub-brands, whatever you may call them. Obviously, as most marketers have done, you've created different brands for different audiences, taken a single product and sold it under multiple names, developed vertical brands. In good times, you were able to rationalize and support all of them.

As in "the case of the best customer," you need to determine whether you can rightfully support all of these brands equally at this point. Look for overlap or redundancy. Is there an opportunity to reposition, or leverage things differently? Or is it a matter of admitting that you jumped onto the exuberance bubble without even a glance at a long-haul strategy? I said there would be tough choices.

As much as we'd like to deny it, the economy and our environment is not likely to change anytime soon. Anyone old enough to know better knows better. Conditions are not mercurial; they're cyclical. And anyone who just plain knows better knows you can't just put your head down, peddle diligently through and hope they'll pass.

To successfully brand in uncertain times, you need to get off that cycle, take what you intuitively know from Brand 101, add a good dose of innovative thinking-and then seek a different way to reach your destination.

Mr. Adamson is managing director, WPP Group's Landor Associates, New York

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