Ubiquitous 20th Century Brands Set To Disappear In 2008

An article appeared in Wall Street Journal last week by Douglas A. McIntyre about heretofore well-known brands like E*Trade, Yahoo!, K-Mart, Dodge, Circuit City, Old Navy and others who are doomed to disappear within months if they do not get their act together.

Their failing in part (and they are not the only ones who will eventually be on the list) is in paying attention to “the deal” which is necessary but short-term, while failing to give equal time to “the brand” which is also necessary and long-term.

Brands, of course, are belief systems. The failing of these brands is that after experiencing success, they failed to keep energizing their belief system. The result? Customers found something else to believe in.

K-Mart customers went to Target. Yahoo! Customers went to Google. Circuit City customers defaulted to Best Buy. Dodge customers found Toyota. And so forth.

Part of the problem is fundamental: the push/pull infighting between sales and marketing departments. Neither realize their relationship is symbiotic. Neither can exist without the other. If you make quarterly sales forecasts by providing discounts, bargains, best prices and value propositions based on “deals” that continually borrow from the brand bank, eventually you find yourself bankrupt. And it’s not just a metaphor.

On the other hand, if you fill the marketplace with ethereal “branding” while the competition pummels you with price points, you will also fail.

The solution is balance.

What we call Primal Branding helps resolve this conflict between the sales and marketing departments by providing executable points for both.

Understanding how your brand functions as a belief system helps you identify functional and actionable rallying points. What we call the primal code are seven points of differentiation that help you design and continually re-engineer your brand to constantly excite and inspire your public.

It starts with the story of how a product or company started. Apple computers started in a garage, Abercrombie & Fitch began as a sporting outfitter, Burberry started in WW1 trenches, U2 is from Dublin.

The second piece of code is the creed. What is the product about? BMW is the ultimate driving machine. Apple thinks different. Nike tells us to “Just do it.”.

Icons are the third piece: concentrations of meaning we recognize as belonging to that brand. The Nike swoosh. The Chanel C. The Levi’s back pocket. Product design, like the Apple iPhone, is iconic. Store experiences are iconic. Scent and taste are also icons. In fact, icons can inform any of the senses.

Rituals are also code. iPods reinvented the way we listen to music. Starbucks transported the rite of morning coffee from home kitchen to the Starbucks corner.

Communities also have their own vocabulary, Think iPod. Think iced grande skinny decaf latte.

There is also a group who don’t like us and never will. Mac vs. PC. Democrats vs. Republicans. Chevy vs. Ford.

Finally, there is a leader. The person who set out with a new product, service or idea to recreate the world according to their own point of view.

When all seven pieces of primal code are attached to a product, they create a belief system that attracts people who want to share those same beliefs. And people who believe, belong.

Power brands like Starbucks, Nike, Apple, and Oprah have been able to capture these points through terrific gut instinct, by hiring smart people, being incredible lucky, and spending millions of dollars in support.

Those brands seize imaginations with incredible emotional power. People want to belong to these brands, are excited by them and prefer them above other choices.

Brands like these can even dominate the category experience. Think about it. You don’t just say you’re getting coffee, you say you’re going to Starbucks. You don’t go to buy furniture, you went to Ikea. You don’t listen to music, you listen to your iPod.

These brands radiate with primal code. And they are followed by millions of people who share not just their products, but their beliefs. They belong to us, and we belong to them. We become part of a great (and global) community. We smile at others we see carrying a white Starbucks cup, wear ear pods for their Nano, or are emblazoned with North Face gear. We are members of the same tribe.

The failing of failing brands like K-Mart, Circuit City, Old Navy and others on the termination list is that while they may have introduced new technologies (like Yahoo! and Vonage) they failed to re-engage and spark their consumers imaginations, which is where all brands (and, for that matter, their sense of having gotten a “deal”).
The fact that we can’t recall the creation story for K-Mart, Circuit City, Old Navy, for example, declares there was never ever any foundation for those brands. (Dodge, founded by John and Horace Dodge, has other issues.)

While the creed for Old Navy, K-Mart and Circuit City was the offer to buy good merchandise at affordable prices, that claim is ubiquitous and hardly differentiating. In the end, they have been eclipsed by better merchandisers at Hollister, Aeropostale, Target and Best Buy.

In a world where quantity and quality are assured, brands of the future will be those able to surround themselves with communities of people who prefer them above other options.

The failure of brands like Gateway, Motorola, Vonage and others in the dead zone is that they failed the essential mission of all brands: to constantly excite, inspire and provide continuing rounds of desire for their brand community.

The opportunity in the short time is for management to recalibrate, and swiftly kick-start their brands all over again. Will they seize that opportunity, or will they simply shrug their shoulders, check off the boxes and let marketing by rote seize the day? We’ll know by the end of the year.