Sever the ties that bind brands

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While I myself haven't watched "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" or "Extreme Makeover" (really, I haven't), I am keenly aware of what makes these shows so popular. Indulgence in some innocent voyeurism, yes. But more likely, vicarious delight in the possibility of personal transformation. Who wouldn't love the opportunity to be transformed, if given the chance? To embrace life on a whole new set of terms?

Thankfully, with a little help from science, technology and a gaggle of aesthetic specialists of every stripe and ripple, transformation-at least of the external sort-is becoming easier to achieve. Virtual Darwinism at its Botox best.

But what about the internal stuff? The things that have to do with being something different, rather than simply appearing to be something different. Is transformation really transformation if you've only scratched the surface and haven't delved into those deeper regions that influence behavior and personality?

I started to think about this when a client came to ask if it was possible to transform a brand in such a way that people would radically change the way they thought about and interacted with the brand. Could you make the very experience of the brand viscerally and practically different? A new sensation in every sense of the word, and not merely an extreme makeover of logo, ad campaign, store design or PR tactics?

yes, but...

My answer was yes, but. In order to transform a brand in such a significant way-take a brand's positioning to a whole new place-you'd have to go way below the surface. In fact, you'd have to set yourself free from the anchors that hold the brand steadfastly to its current position and re-anchor your brand someplace else, with a different set of anchors.

What do I mean by this?

Brand anchors are points of consumer experience that lock down a brand's image in the consumer's mind. Those unique and specific associations that a consumer links with the brand that give it shape, substance, meaning. Reinforcement over time-intentional or otherwise-at specific points of interaction with the brand has set these anchors deep into the cerebral sandbank.

My premise is that to genuinely transform a brand you've got to break some of these long-entrenched anchors. Release yourself from the associations that have taken hold at certain points of interaction with your brand.

Then, after breaking away from these anchors, you've got to identify the customer touch points at which to "sink" a new set of anchors-and go about sinking them-providing, if you will, a fresh foundation on which to rebuild your transformed brand.

By way of example, let's say that McDonald's wanted its brand to stand for healthy fast-food eating. For the record (de-super sizing aside), I'm not saying it should. Doing so could lead to the same results Coke faced when it introduced New Coke in the `80s.

Again, just for argument sake, let's say it wanted to. It could certainly add some tofu to a few salads or a selection of fresh fruits to the menu. But, going back to my premise, unless McDonald's released itself from its established associations with menu items like Big Macs, fries and shakes-a few of its mainstay anchors-it couldn't even begin to float its Golden Arches to a new brand position.

Or what if, like BP, you wanted to assert yourself as the cleaner, friendlier, more environmentally aware energy company. You'd have to cut and replace the anchors keeping you from attaining this position. A critical anchor point in this case might be the consumer experience at the pump. To be associated with "green energy," you'd have to be green energy. Make the weekly stop for gas literally cleaner, friendlier oil-spill-free and add solar powered pumps. Which, by the way, they did.

The bottom line is that if you don't recognize and cut, or dramatically re-engineer, the anchors most critical for holding you to the current location in the consumer psyche, if you don't identify new touch points and drive in the respective anchors capable of supporting your new brand position, you'll never be able to achieve meaningful brand transformation.

map it out

So how do you go about just such a process? Start by mapping the path customers take on their journey with your brand. Everything from direct or promotional activities, to teleservices operations, to front desk or checkout counter, and so on. Once you have mapped your customer journey, determine which key anchor points are keeping your brand locked down and stuck in its current space.

Next think about potentially new customer points of touch at which you might be able to sink new positioning anchors. Additional proof points, as it were. For BP, it meant considering the sponsorship of a sailing competition rather than Nascar racing.

After you have re-anchored your brand you are free to alert the world that you're sexier, friendlier, healthier or whatever. Then, and only then, should you consider ways to tell the world about your transformed brand by executing relevant changes to identity, ad campaign, or store design.

But, before you sign off on any "Queer Eye" variety transformations, make sure that what you're planning to flaunt on the outside appropriately reflects what's been going on inside. Remember, appearing to be something different is not the same as being something different.

For genuine brand transformation you've got to cut the ties that bind and replace them with anchors that have the strength and credibility to hold for the long term. Any successful brand knows it's what's below the surface that counts.

About the author

Allen P. Adamson is managing director at strategy and design consultancy Landor Associates, and a frequent lecturer on branding topics.

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