Giving your brand a good death is an underrated marketing skill
Although we never talk about it, marketers kill as many brands as we create, and doing so in the right way at the right time is crucial to business health.
I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately. Not the human kind, the marketing kind. The kind that happens when a brand shuffles off its commercial coil and closes its doors forever. The kind that happened to Tweetbot last week.
Launched in 2011, Tweetbot was a very handy little app. Billed as Twitter with personality, it featured a ton of features that the native Twitter app never had or which it incorporated much later. Its 15-year existence, $5 price tag and award-winning functionality meant that it became the face of Twitter for hundreds of thousands of users who stayed with the app as it upgraded and improved itself.
Until 12 January, that is, when – mysteriously – Tweetbot could no longer access the Twitter feeds of its users. After five long days Twitter cryptically announced that it was “enforcing” its API rules – effectively disabling any third-party apps from accessing the social media site and rendering these apps fundamentally useless.
A few days later, the Tapbots team that created Tweetbot back in 2011 were left with no other option but to announce the brand’s demise. Normally at this point we would dwell on the strategic reasons for this situation. But the story, for once, is not about the strategic challenges of Tweetbot but the manner of its death. The Tapbot team – who bill themselves as creating “delightful”, “charming” apps – applied these rare qualities to the final moments of Tweetbot’s existence in a closing act of brand consistency.
The company created an online obituary for its now defunct brand. One of the app’s distinctive symbols – a cartoon elephant – was shown mournfully looking at its grave. A halo appeared over the brand’s much loved logo. And the team went out not with technical announcements or bitter accusations but a plaintive thank-you and a promise of new horizons.
“We’ve invested over 10 years building Tweetbot for Twitter and it was shut down in a blink of an eye,” the app’s obituary explained. “We are very sorry to all of our customers who chose Tweetbot as their way to interact with Twitter’s service and we thank you so much for the many years of support and feedback. While it is time for us to lay it to rest, a new bot will rise in its place and be greater than Tweetbot ever was.”
I’ve been semi-obsessed with how brands die for a long time. I’ve loitered in ancient department stores 15 minutes before their final sale. Savoured with an extra flourish the final wine from a long-gone vineyard. There is something dark and special in how a brand closes its doors and the team, who often created it or were its final custodians, have to say something before unplugging everything, switching off the lights and walking out into the night.
In marketing we tend to follow the Western/Christian approach to life and death. We venerate and overstate the former and ignore and avoid the latter. That’s crazy because, apart from a few very old luxury brands, death is just as common as creation in the world of brand management. Companies keep launching new brands but, unless I am missing something, they must be shutting down just as many. We just don’t talk about it in marketing.
The focus is always on launching, on scaling up and growth hacking. Nobody in our profession talks about killing products or sending them off into that good night with an appropriate farewell, finishing the brand story with a final moment of consistency and leaving employees and consumers feeling the fulfilling catharsis of a perfect end.
Despite the silence, death is something we are meant to think about in our industry. One of the aspects of marketing theory that most marketers miss is the idea that some, perhaps most, of the products that their organisation wants to launch should be shut down before they even see the light of day.
The first question should never be ‘how’ will you market this product. It should be ‘whether’ this product should be launched in the first place. And marketers are the best people to ask these questions, given they are the least likely to be smoking the crack pipe of innovation or mainlining the heroin of new-product optimism. Despite our reputation for bullshit and overstatement, good marketers are perennially wary of new products and the claims of the company obsessed with launching them.
We represent the market; the reality that happens once the fever dream of innovation ends. Perhaps the greatest gift marketers can give their organisations is pointing out when a ‘hot’ new product is no such thing. Its ‘hotness’ derives not from any actual market potential but because its development team long ago lost the plot and the sales team has been counting its future bonuses as much as their chickens.
Marketers can and should be able to use the marketing process to test a new product with the target customer it is meant to delight and against the competitors that it is meant to smash. And we should be able to do this before the wheels of mass manufacturing start turning and costs are sunk.
I once flew to India to be part of a country review of marketing plans for a large pharma company. One of the final brand plans of the day came from a junior marketer assigned to a much heralded new product. As she went through her data and market assessment, it became clear that the product was a terrible fit for India. It simply would not work. Her final recommendation was not how to launch the product, but how to shelve it.
After the presentation, the general manager for India approached and tore strips off her for embarrassing him in front of the global team. He had booked revenue for the product next year. The executive visitors were expecting a launch plan. What had she been thinking? She had failed him.
When he was done, my big boss, the head of international marketing, walked over and very quietly told her: “That was awesome, come work for me in New Jersey.”
We need more marketers like her. And more bosses like him. Saving a company 10 million quid by stopping a shit product from being launched is just as valuable as making the same amount from a successful launch. We just don’t think about it that way in marketing. About the brands we killed. The products we destroyed. The money we saved. There is a stigma about killing products that we need to get beyond.
Even when a product succeeds, it will often reach a point when it no longer makes a case for its own existence. Customers change. Competitors innovate. Cost structures alter. Once again, marketers are meant to embrace death. To look at a brand portfolio not only as an opportunity for growth and expansion, but first with a gimlet eye for death.
Only Western cultures regard death as a negative. It could and should be seen for what it really is: a chance for renewal and progress and refocus. Over the last decade, killing brands has been a far more rewarding and important corporate core competence than launching new ones. Every company from Coca-Cola to P&G is a shadow of its former self in terms of product portfolio. And much the better for it.
Learning when to kill a brand, and then how to kill it, are vital skills. Ask Google. Last week it closed its Stadia brand forever. Launched in 2019, the cloud service was meant to allow a range of devices from PCs to iPads to access the latest networked games, thereby killing off the clunky 20th-century concept of a console. But almost from the outset, and even during Covid, the service simply failed to attract the appropriate numbers of gamers to make the service feasible.
Again, this story is not about the reason for Stadia’s death but rather the expert manner in which Google pulled the trigger. The end was announced back in September and Google stopped taking in-game transactions even though the cloud system remained playable. The company also made good on a promise to refund Stadia purchases. The brand’s networked handsets were given a free Bluetooth upgrade making them compatible and therefore usable with other games systems. And, in a final touching moment, the Stadia team launched one last game. Worm Game was the original software the Stadia team created to test the functionality of their new networked site. It became the very last title, made available a few days before the site closed for good.
Brands should embrace death as a final all-important part of their existence. Those of us capable of realising the nonsensical nature of the Pearly Gates and ‘life after death’ are in a much better position to enjoy the life we so fleetingly enjoy and the death that might perfectly conclude it. “The fear of death follows from the fear of life,” Mark Twain once said. “A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”
Similarly, well managed brands should not just enjoy a successful, profitable existence. Their excellence should extend to their extinction. Those brand managers that predict, plan and then execute a ‘good death’ for their charges are surely worthy of a little more respect and coverage in the marketing literature than they currently get. Anyone can launch a hot new brand, most of them will fail after all. But closing one down with class and congruency is much the rarer skill. And one that goes unacknowledged.
Twain was as good as his word, by the way. Born in 1835, when Halley’s Comet made an appearance in the night sky, he intended his exit to align perfectly with his original entrance and waited for the famed Comet to make its next visit. “It will be the greatest disappointment of my life,” he told friends in 1909, “if I don’t go out with Halley’s comet.”
He died of a heart attack on 21 April, 1910, one day after the comet passed overhead. Twain not only died in the manner he predicted but in exactly the way his life would have suggested: mystical, lyrical, iconic.
For the very same reason, I very much like the story of how John Le Mesurier passed away. The kind, gentle English actor famed for his role as Sergeant Wilson in Dad’s army was taken ill in Ramsgate. Reaching for his wife’s hand he smiled and told her “it’s all been rather lovely”, then slipped into a coma, never to recover. His final moments a perfect epitome of the man himself.
Hunter S Thompson’s death is strikingly similar. Not because he passed like the urbane Le Mesurier or romantic Twain, but because his death was equally consistent and contiguous with the life that led to it. After writing a poem to his wife called ‘Football Season is Over’, the inventor of gonzo journalism shot himself in the head. His ashes were later fired into the sky from a cannon by Johnny Depp, while Norman Greenbaum’s ‘Spirit in the Sky’ boomed over a PA system. Gonzo to the very end.
Football Season is Over, by Hunter S. Thompson
No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won’t hurt.
Let us embrace the idea that brands, like all of us, must die. And, as marketers, take pride in both that killer fact and the expert manner that killing demands of us. It is the perfect coda to all the optimistic talk of launch and innovation that occupies our industry too much. As a marketer, make sure you consider what lies on the other side of the curtain and the ideal moment for it to fall.