We’re all passionate about at least one company. One brand. One little logo or mark that got under our skin in a good way for one reason or another. My father has had a love affair with Aston martin, BMW, Smalto, Cartier, Omega, RayBan and Mont Blanc for as long as I can remember. My mother: Hermes, Celine, LeNotre, Autobianchi, Corvette and Baskin Robbins. My brother: Apple, Canon and Sony. It wasn’t always so, but brands help define us. Like it or not, they are part of our identity. The brands we choose to make our own make up a very visible outward-facing layer that gives our tastes and preferences texture, language and context: You’re either a Mac or a PC, a Canon or a Nikon, a Nike or an Adidas.
On a superficial level, the Kenneth Cole pants you wear tell an onlooker as much about you as the Starbucks cup in your hand and the Panerai watch on your wrist. But on a deeper, more emotional level, the success of a brand is something we find ourselves vested in, not just because our image may be tied to that of a company’s (its success implies our own), but because we genuinely care about the welfare of a brand which – in a very real way – is as much a part of our world as a favorite sports team, favorite artist, and even a friend or close relative.
When I was a kid, Sony was one of the brands I looked up to the most. Before Apple was Apple, Sony was – at least in my mind – the leader in electronics: Their first Walkman was the “it” product for quite some time, soon followed by their bright yellow (and other special edition colors – I had a black one) sports walkman. Their TVs and stereo systems were also among the most sought-after. Sony wasn’t necessarily first to market, but they still managed to own every market they focused on. Fast forward to 2010, and the picture changes. Sony is still here, still a major player in the electronics market, but far from the pole position it enjoyed 25 years ago. And as a childhood fan of the brand, as a life-long user of Sony products, it bothers me to no end. It isn’t as if Sony stopped making great products: Their Playstation 3 console is stellar. I am typing this blog post on a Sony VAIO that is by far the best PC/laptop I have ever owned. But… Sony’s market leadership is no more. No matter how great its products may be, it has lost its touch. Things simply aren’t the same anymore. And that can be fixed, dare I say… easily.
Sadly, the idea that brands are in a very real way living, breathing entities, that they are born, that they grow and mature and eventually die is one that seldom makes in into strategic discussions in the C-suite or in most Marketing departments. Yet it should be. Market share and sales numbers alone do not define the success and relevance of a brand. They never have. Ask Cartier. Ask Apple. Ask Starbucks and McDonald’s, even.
Everywhere I look, I see brands on the rise and brands faltering: Apple’s star has never shone brighter than it does now. Ford also weathered the storm that threatened to shatter the American auto industry less than two years ago, and came out of the gauntlet a better, smarter, cooler brand. Google hasn’t fared too badly either. They’re the lucky few. Others aren’t faring so well. Whether stalled or outright slipping downward, many brands seem to be struggling to either hold on to past glories or reach the next level in their rise to success, and it pains me. As a consumer and as a brand management guy, it actually weighs on me. I wish I could help them. I wish there were some way. Sometimes, I get lucky and I have an opportunity to help, but not often enough. Not nearly often enough. I was thinking about this in my car this morning, and started making a mental list of companies I wish I could advise, companies whose brands I wish I could help rebuild, and what I came up with looks like this:
Sony: Because it should be Apple’s biggest rival, and so easily could be. In short, Sony should own every market in which a product plugs into a wall or a USB port and emits a sound. Not only that, but the Sony brand has to restore its cohesiveness: Sony, like Apple, needs to be sought again. Its line of products can’t be scattered as it is now, its success jagged and unclear. The products are there, but there’s a lot of work to be done in terms of marketing, PR, awareness and promotion.
McDonald’s (US): Because it seems to have lost track of its own identity. Who are they trying to emulate this week? Starbucks? Strangely, this identity problem doesn’t seem to have spread to the European market. I visited three McDonald’s locations in France last month (two in Paris and one in Cannes), and the general consensus was this: “Why can’t McDonald’s be like this in the US?” The question stands: Why can’t it? Added bonus: Why hasn’t McDonald’s penetrated grocery store and toy store markets yet?
Nike*: Because in spite of the best advertising, R&D and endorsements on the planet, it is making the same mistakes Sony did in the mid 1990s: Nike cannot hope to ride the momentum of its past success forever. Change always comes one way or another.
* This isn’t so much restoring Nike to market leadership as much as it is ensuring that it doesn’t let it slip from its fingers.
Starbucks: Because, like McDonald’s, it seems to have jumped the track. Confusion kills brands faster than bad logo redesigns, and sometimes growth can happen at the expense of everything else. Starbucks simply needs to find itself again and map out its future. Inconsistent experiences between locations (as with the McDonald’s brand) and the added confusion of non-Starbucks locations using the Starbucks logo also need to be tidied-up. I won’t even touch Seattle’s Best yet, but there’s another project.
Chevrolet: Because if Ford did it, so can Chevy. The difference between the two isn’t on the factory floor or in the design suite. Again, hard work but easy fix with the right application of market insight, leadership and courage. Chevy needs to stop thinking acting like a corporation that happens to make and sell cars, and shift its mindset to that of a company whose sole purpose is to inspire, delight and serve drivers everywhere.
Print (all brands): Because newspapers and magazines don’t have to die a slow agonizing death anymore than books do. Not anymore. Distribution and content are changing fast, but this evolution is an opportunity, not a hurdle. Change here is not the enemy. I would gladly dedicate the next five years of my life to this one thing. Companies can come and go, but print news keeps real journalism alive, and we cannot afford to let this industry fail. Not here, not now.
BP, Nestle, Monsanto, Halliburton, Eurostar, Toyota: Because they need it the most of any brand right now, and not everyone there has what it takes to turn their current situations into a string of market wins. Engineering a brand’s comeback takes a very specific skillset not everyone has in their bag of tricks.
Big Pharma (all brands – US): In the US, the model is cracked. Pharmaceutical companies don’t have the best image anymore. Their practices often seem shady. Consumer confidence could be better. In order for these brands to thrive in the next two decades, and in order to take full advantage of the changes in health care on the horizon for Americans, pharmaceutical companies need a cultural, communications and brand management overhaul. Nothing major, but the devil is in the details. Starting perhaps with a shift away from terms like “pharmaceutical” and “drug” to softer words like “medicine” and “care.”
Coca-Cola and/or Pepsi: Because market saturation doesn’t have to result in stalemate. There is still much to conquer for these brands, but they need to start thinking about how to redefine their markets, not just distract them with campaigns, PR and logo redesigns. They’ve plateaued, and something has to happen to catalyze them into rolling forward and up again.
* Again, this isn’t so much restoring either Coke or Pepsi to market leadership as much as it is preventing them from being in irons for the next ten years. They’ve reached the top. Now what?
Greenpeace: Because their message needs to get through to those who still think GreenPeace is an extremist organization. It can be at times, sure, but its role is much more complex and important to our future to allow it to continue being typecast as a bunch of crazed brick-throwing tree-huggers with unreasonable demands.
The Republican Party: Because it has lost its way, and if America is to soar again, both of its biggest political parties need to continuously force the other to new levels of excellence in order to outclass the other. The truth is that Democrats need a relevant Republican party as much as Republicans do. Rivalries keep us from growing soft and complacent. For the last ten years, the level of political discourse in the US has been slipping and frankly, it has reached an all time low. It’s embarrassing and needs to change. Our political system as it stands will continue to breed mediocrity, corruption and failure until we fix this.
Delta Airlines: Because in spite of its many flaws, Delta does some things very well and could be so much more than what it is to its passengers. I really want to see Delta become a shining example of what a major US airline could be. Quality can scale.
CNN: Simply because it could be great again. It once redefined the news business. It can and should do it again.
That’s a small selection, but a good place to start. What does your list look like?