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Why Iconic Brands Decline and What Can Be Done to Reverse It

Iconic brands are often in decline for an easily overlooked reason…they have lost their contextual meaning because people have changed but the brand has not changed with them. People have evolved their story but the brand continues to tell its story in the same way with the same message and/or the same voice it has always used. This creates a disconnection that is subtle at first but widens more and more as people continue to change and the brand stays stuck in its same old story. The reality of the moment has changed but the brand is stuck in its legacy. This isn’t just a matter of keeping up with the times. It’s not about modernity. It’s more than that.

It starts with understanding that your brand is a character in someone else’s life and not a world that the brand itself “owns.” The notion that a brand “owns” someone is one of the most dangerous misconceptions in the marketing world but brands continue to fall into this trap. Brands don’t “own” consumers. What actually happens is the opposite. People use brands to tell themselves stories about who they are. Brands help them create a coherent Narrative Identity for themselves. Narrative Identity is a psychological concept that people use on a daily basis to help them weave together experiences and actions into a life story that helps them make sense of their world. Brands are simply characters in their story and when their story changes the character/brand better evolve too or it will be killed off, given a much less prominent role or simply replaced with another character who better fits their current story.

Yet marketing teams continue to develop brands in a way that defies the reality of how people use them. Brands develop a positioning and stick with it at all costs. They resist change. They try to reflect the essence of how they originally became so successful. They hang onto equities that don’t have the same meaning they had when the person first wanted to bring that brand into their life. Brands tend to fall in love with being consistent even as this consistency no longer connects with the role people want them to play in their lives. This rigidity is a fundamental problem with the notion of positioning. Of course consistency and simplicity are important but not at the price of imprisoning a brand in its own legacy story. Brands need to be able to evolve just as great characters do as we follow them in a story.

Let’s take a brand like Budweiser. It is on a decades long decline that has taken it out of the consideration set for the last three or four generations of new beer drinkers. The brand has iconic meaning to many in the US and, in some cases; it has iconic meaning in other countries as well. It has actual icons like the Clydesdales that endear people to the brand. It has a long-standing tradition that is respected by many. It is as American as apple pie and Chevrolet. It is in the not so unique position that many legacy brands find themselves in…BUT IT HAS LOST ITS ACTUAL ROLE IN THEIR LIVES.

Budweiser’s decline is rooted in being stuck in the legacy of its own masculinity story. The masculinity story many men tell themselves about who they are changed a long time ago and it was around this time that the brand really started its decline. In fact, men continued to evolve their masculinity story over the years and it continues to evolve as we speak. Budweiser built much of its equity on a masculinity story that came out of the Greatest Generation and a WWII version of what it meant to be a man…loyalty, doing for others first, belonging to something bigger than yourself. It was the beer brand that recognized and rewarded you for being this type of man. The brand has struggled to reframe its masculinity story. We still admire the Greatest Generation but they no longer play AN ACTIVE ROLE IN OUR EVERYDAY LIVES.

Contrast the Budweiser story with Old Spice. Another brand that needs to tell a masculinity story because of the categories it operates in. Old Spice changed its masculinity story to one of satire. It continued to utilize its nautical equity/associations but it reflected masculinity in a way that didn’t take itself so seriously. Yes, this was in response to Axe already doing this in the category but instead of staying stuck the brand changed its masculinity story. It recognized that it is really a character in someone’s life and in order to keep its role in a man’s life it needed to tell a masculinity story that helped a guy tell himself a story about the kind of man he is…in today’s terms.

How is it possible for your iconic brand with a legacy story from yesterday to become relevant again today?

Think of your brand as a character and your consumer as a narrator of their story.

  • Start with understanding your narrator’s story…have them talk about the chapters of their lives in some broader context that is relevant to what your brand sells (i.e. not literally the category you operate in).
  • How have they become the person they are and how do they define the person they want to be in that context?
  • Really listen to your narrator’s story on their terms — as humans not consumers buying a product.
  • How does your narrator define their identity? What are the Identity Tensions they are trying to reconcile in their desire to feel more cohesive in the context you’ve created?

And then think about your brand as a character in their story.

There are so many iconic brands declining out there. And so many of them get stuck in their legacy. Perhaps you work with one of them. You might need to change the way you think about what a brand is and what it actually does for people. You might need to adopt a different process that starts with thinking of your target as a narrator with a life full of experiences that has shaped them. Someone who is trying to tell themselves a coherent story about who they are and is looking for a brand that will help them tell that story by playing a meaningful role in his or her life.

Sounds daunting but it can be a really insightful journey that can transform a brand and a business.

Written by

Co-Founder & Insights Strategist at market research company RealityCheck Consulting.

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