Recapturing the glory days

It’s not easy to stop the rot when a brand is in decline, yet there’s no shortage of ways to get to grips with the problem – one of the most effective being to ask why no one buys it any more. By Alicia Clegg

LucozadeCreating a product from scratch is so obviously snared with traps that the prospect of rejuvenating a brand that has known better times sounds by comparison a far easier route. Yet brand relaunches, whatever their reputation as a low-risk strategy, are no soft option.

Miscalculate with an innovation and you throw away the investment that you made in developing the product and publicising it to consumers. Do the same with a brand whose star is waning and you wave goodbye to the money that you have sunk in the relaunch and probably many loyal customers.

Small wonder then that owners of so-called legacy and heritage brands are among the most voracious consumers of brand research. Even so, the odds of recapturing the glory days of an ageing brand do not magically improve once a business opts for market research. Ask the wrong questions and matters could be made worse.

One venerable British brand that has struggled at times to ask the right questions is the BBC World Service. As Alan Booth, marketing communications and audiences controller, puts it: “Legacy brands are often brilliant at asking questions that were relevant ten years ago. But these aren’t going to take the business forward.”

False Friend
At the crux of the problem confronting heavyweight veterans such as the BBC is the high weighting that conventional brand research attaches to metrics such as consumer awareness. This is useful enough if your primary need is to get yourself known but it can be a false, if consoling, friend when your brand is a household name that people regard with affection. 

To overcome its major problem of being watched only when big news stories are breaking, the BBC World Service commissioned research-based consultancy, The Depot, to explore how best to exploit internet radio, podcasts and other digital innovations.

Rather than simply holding focus groups The Depot adopted a context-based approach and divided the project into two distinct phases. In the first, researchers focused on observing through ethnographic studies how people were consuming media at home, in the office and on their journeys to and from work. Next, The Depot road-tested several weeks of prerecorded content over a mix of media including radio, PCs and mobile devices to find out which combinations of content and platforms worked best together.

By starting with a clean slate rather than an agenda predicated upon existing beliefs, says Booth, The Depot helped the World Service to position its interactive services not just alongside rival broadcasters such as CNN and Al Jazeera but additionally among competition that had not been previously considered – YouTube and MySpace and so on.

No less importantly the research demolished programme makers’ deep-seated assumptions about how people absorb news.

As an example of how the research challenged these, Booth highlights how the project brought home to the BBC just how much people’s receptiveness to news items depends not on the intrinsic merit of a story, however logical this might seem, but on the time of day. “In the morning people tend to be domestically oriented,” he points out. “They don’t want detailed analysis.”

However, as the day goes on, he continues, people become more willing to take detail on board and are “more inclined to seek out international stories.”

For good measure the study put paid to another long-cherishedcore belief – that audiences are impressed by items featuring a global name. “We had an interview with Clinton but the listeners really hated it,” Booth recalls. “What came back was that the interviewer had given him too soft a time.”

Reprecussions
Booth’s central point – that revitalisation often demands the sacrifice of sacred cows – has repercussions not just for the custodians of mature brands but also for the way in which agencies manage and communicate controversial research. An inescapable conclusion is that market researchers should be prepared to take on the power hierarchies since senior managers, who fondly recall the glory days of declining brands, are often the biggest road blocks to change.

One agency familiar with the organisational politics of research is Evo Research. As a practical solution to the problem, Evo recommends that rejuvenation projects should start with a workshop, in which “internal stakeholders” from the chief executive down are encouraged to share everything that they know or believe to be true about the brand.

After that the agency makes a point of introducing the senior management team to lapsed customers, so that they can hear for themselves the unpalatable truths about the brand’s diminishing popularity. The fact is that brands © can be heavily rooted in a culture to which audiences no longer relate.

Says Evo Research founding partner Davina O’Donoghue/ “Some of the lager brands that were popular in the 1980s, such as Holsten, were built around an Oxbridge Footlights style of humour that was so much of its time that the translation to a contemporary setting is almost impossible to make.”

Also problematic are brand renewals involving products considered upmarket in their heyday but which are currently regarded by the public as no more than functional. In such cases the brand’s owners need to be encouraged to adopt a more realistic positioning.

Break from the past
As an example of this phenomenon, Fitch planning director Pearse McCabe points to the motorway service chain Welcome Break, which today employs a down-to-earth and humorous tone. This, he says, is light years away from its approach when motorway travel was thought glamorous. McCabe explains: “When you put the iconic swan that once symbolised Welcome Break in front of people, you can see from their body language that an aspirational positioning is no longer relevant.”

Sometimes, though, it is the least hopeful patients that escape from the brand resuscitation unit to embrace a new lease of life. Where this is the case the reason very often is that with the help of consumer insight, something distinctive in its heritage that had meaning for customers in the past could be given a contemporary slant and still have meaning today.

For a classic example of this, says David Iddiols, senior partner at HPI Research, look no further than the reworking of “revitalisation” in Lucozade’s extraordinary metamorphosis from convalescents’ pick-me-up to power-packed sports drink. So what research interventions offer the best prognosis for recuperating brands? Added Value associate director Peter Drinkwater advises marketers to seek out younger, more affluent consumers from the progressive end of the mainstream market.

“The big mistake is to go for a representative sample and focus on the middle ground,” he says. “The trouble is that these people can’t help you restore modernity and vitality to the brand.”

Welcome%20Lodge‘Emotional adjacencies’
When working creatively with consumers Added Value’s innovatory approach provides plenty of visual and tactile stimulus such as image-based exercises and word sorts to help participants use their imaginations.

Another useful principle is to encourage participants to think laterally around what Cliff Nichols, director of brand strategy at Millward Brown, calls the brand’s “emotional adjacencies”.

He explains/ “If a brand has a profile that is quite distinct in the mind of the consumer but which isn’t doing it any favours in the category in which it sits, there may be opportunities to diversify into a sector that offers more scope.”

As an example Nichols cites Apple’s move out of the tired PC category into music and entertainment.

But are death and decay the inevitable fate of mature brands? Not according to Tim Williams, chairman of the Independent Consultants Group. He firmly believes that at least some of the money spent on high-profile brand reinventions can be spared for other purposes if companies are more vigilant on their brands’ behalf.

He says: “Take Boots No7, which was invented in the 1930s. Here’s a classic example of how something with a long heritage can be kept contemporary through continuous refreshment, even in a rapidly-changing market. When brands stagnate often it is because of neglect and a failure to invest.”

When an ailing brand stages a spectacular recovery the natural response is to cheer loudly. But as any doctor would confirm, it is better to invest in your health than gamble on being able to pull back from death’s door.

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