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Business Journal

Your Roots Are Showing

It’s not enough to tell people you’ve changed. Brands such as KFC and Wal-Mart may encounter a credibility gap between what they say and what they do.

by William J. McEwen

Markets aren't stagnant. Consumer preferences and habits evolve while competitors redefine what's available and at what price. Market conditions can change unexpectedly and dramatically.

Through no apparent fault of your own . . .

Through no apparent fault of your own, you may wake up one morning to discover that the world is no longer in love with what you have to sell, whether it's Betamax tapes, sports utility vehicles, or sub-prime mortgages.

In many cases, the question isn't whether you need to adapt to a changing marketplace, but how. There are several routes brands could take.

Talk to consumers. Tell them you're not what they think you are.

When confronted with shifting consumer expectations, some marketers revise their brand promise. The strategy goes something like this: If consumers are no longer interested in your communications promise, change it. This may take the form of new advertising that confronts the current image of your brand. You might challenge consumers to reconsider what they think about you. This was the strategy of the Florida citrus growers' ad campaign declaring: "Orange juice; it's not just for breakfast."

Or perhaps you could tell the world you deserve reconsideration because you're no longer the same type of business. In the United States, that's what General Motors' Chevrolet is attempting to do, according to Advertising Age. Chevy plans to tell prospective car buyers that it's "a brand-new company," with advertising aimed at getting Americans "over the problem" they apparently have with U.S. cars. It's worth remembering another GM division trying to sell the same story -- not entirely successfully -- to car buyers some years ago with the [slogan]: "This is not your father's Oldsmobile." While this communications strategy may offer apparent immediacy and affordability, it is also likely to meet with skepticism.

Don't just tell consumers you've changed: show them. Change your product.

Some companies go beyond merely changing what they say to consumers. They alter not only what they promise but also the brand experience they deliver. This requires a much deeper level of company commitment, with investment in product development, repackaging, and redesign.

One casual dining restaurant chain, Ruby Tuesday, recently changed its store decor and its entire menu. It has replaced its tired bar-and-grill theme with a focus on "fresh, simple" food. (See "How to Rejuvenate Your Brand" in the "See Also" area on this page.) Ruby Tuesday's approach is similar to KFC's strategy as it prepares to move away from its historic roots in "fast" and "fried" toward a new emphasis on healthier grilled chicken options. It seeks to change the product, not just the promise.

In the retail arena, supermarkets Safeway and Wal-Mart, mirroring Tesco's Fresh & Easy markets in California, are experimenting with small-format stores designed to build their business among time-starved shoppers who yearn for food that's fresh and healthy as well as convenient.

Among clothing merchandisers, department store Sears hopes to upgrade its image and share of business among fashion-conscious consumers. It has rolled out a new product line for New York's Fashion Week. Wal-Mart is introducing fashions from designer Norma Kamali, while H&M has unveiled designs from Stella McCartney to Karl Lagerfeld. These retailers are looking to change or upgrade their image, aided by new -- or borrowed -- products.

On a different scale, Abu Dhabi is embarking on an ambitious effort at image redefinition. The emirate has created an "Office of the Brand of Abu Dhabi" and has set up relationships with prestigious brand names. It has bought the right to name its new art museum The Louvre, which joins a Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim, a Ferrari theme park, and a branch of Paris' Sorbonne University.

But is that all it takes? Is it merely a question of ensuring that you have a product or partner that fits well with what you want consumers to feel about your brand?

If it were that simple, GM wouldn't have its troubled Hummer division up for sale. It would simply slap the Hummer name on a green, compact, gas-sipping hybrid and reap the benefits that should seemingly result from having a desirable product coupled with a familiar name. GM has spent millions establishing the Hummer name, and since it already has an extended-range electric vehicle planned for 2010, couldn't it brand this new car with the familiar name and solve the problem of its declining sales?

The issue is that Hummer isn't starting from scratch. Nor is KFC, Wal-Mart, Sears, or Abu Dhabi. These are established brands, not blank slates. All have existing images, customers, and employees.

Know where you're coming from.

It's not just your new destination that must be carefully considered; it's also your starting point. Your brand may not be perceived as you'd like it to be, but you can't ignore what consumers currently think and feel about you. KFC cannot create an immediate association with light and healthy foods, regardless of how it promotes its cooking style, any more than Wal-Mart will be instantaneously known for trendy fashion or Abu Dhabi will be on a perceptual par with Paris.

If you aim to reposition . . .

It takes more than sending a message, announcing a new product, or redesigning a store. It takes time and patience -- both of which are often in short supply in marketing. It also requires a clear understanding of your brand and how far it can stretch.

Brands are not infinitely elastic. McDonald's cannot readily transform itself into a pizzeria, Rolls-Royce can't open a discount shoe store, and Ryanair can't become a luxury airline just by adding leather seats.

You also can't forget about the customers who brought you to this position. By moving too fast along a path that seems unnatural, you can confuse and alienate your current customers and befuddle your staff.

What goes through the mind of the Wal-Mart shopper who now sees Norma Kamali on the shelves? And what about the Kamali loyalist who encounters her favorite brand in the racks of her neighborhood Wal-Mart? Can the Wal-Mart employee "live" Kamali as well as Wal-Mart's own low-priced George brand? Brand fit can't be ignored; nor can it be assumed. This may be the most difficult challenge. If you aim to reposition yourself, you have to build on what you already are.

This has been a problem for photography brand Kodak. Long synonymous with film, it has been trying to make the transition into the digital world, but other companies have moved in and stolen its market share.

Volkswagen ran into difficulties with its attempt to launch the luxury $48,000 Phaeton model in the United States, [branding] it with the mass-market VW brand and supporting it with the existing dealer network. A lack of brand fit is what has confounded its efforts.

Companies should be aware that this can plague any business that ignores where it's coming from as it pursues where it hopes to be.

This article originally appeared in Brand Strategy and is reprinted with permission. Brand Strategy is a publication of Centaur Media PLC.

William J. McEwen, Ph.D., is the author of Married to the Brand.
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