Brand rot

Brands are rarely made better when we add to them. The more we add stuff — be it for the sake of ‘the new’ or to fend off what we see as competitive threat — the greater the risk that we dilute and obfuscate what we really are.

You’ve seen it for most of your life. Hi fi components adding more and more knobs and lights. TV remote controls adding button after button beyond on, off and channel/volume up and down. Software that was once incredibly straightforward and intuitive suddenly launches v2.0 and it sinks into an unusable quagmire of new features that seem to get in the way of what you are trying to do. This far too common a phenomenon has been memorably described by the usability expert Jared Spool, as ‘experience rot’. He defines this as the addition of features that add complexity to the design and decrease the quality of experience.

As Jared points out, experience rot, at its heart, is counter intuitive — new features are added with the good intention of driving a greater competitive edge but the addition of new features actually makes you less useful and therefore less competitive, This is not a problem that is unique to product design and experience. Increasingly, we’re seeing the same issues eat away at the heart of that most valuable of things, the brand. Experience rot begets brand rot.

You can see it in the way that brands try to shape shift and adapt to new contexts. As new competitors enter a market, the standard reaction is to launch a new marketing campaign or a new product designed to tackle this new challenge head on. Makes sense, surely? Yet this creates a whole host of unintended consequences. By acknowledging the new competitor or offering, you risk giving the new far greater credibility than if you left it to plough its own path. Before you know it, you reframe the market in their, rather than your, favor. It’s Ehrenberg’s ‘Double Jeopardy’ applied to brand management.

If that wasn’t bad enough, you begin to confuse and dilute the code your brand was built upon. Whether you are conviction or product led, brands win when they have a brutal clarity of focus that informs every decision it makes. Clarity inside the organization provides clarity and luminescence outside the organization so people get intuitively what you are about. It’s about building mental monopolies, as Richard Huntington puts it so memorably. The more we add stuff — be it for the sake of ‘the new’ or to fend off what we see as competitive threat — the greater the risk that we dilute and obfuscate what we really are. We enter new categories because we believe we have permission (hello, Lynx hair salons). We launch more product lines to fend off our competitors and try and gain more shelf space or do more things for people. You are everywhere yet you risk becoming nothing.

Throw on top of this the fragmenting marketing landscape and you see too many brands trying to do too many things for too many people. We try and fill every channel. Be the first to use a platform. Fill space. Not because we feel we should. But more often because we want to crowd others out. We look bloated on the outside because we are becoming bloated on the inside. More silos form around new initiatives. Decision making and speed of action gets ever slower.

Look around and you’ll see this rot happening to far too many brands, old and young alike. The antidote to all this is two letters: “no”. Brands that are free of rot tend to exhibit decisive leadership that protects the code that instructs and inspires everything they do. They simplify the experience to do one thing (or a few) well. They strive to communicate their presence in the right three degrees not attempt to fill the possible 360 degrees available to brands today. They are aware of what’s possible and what competitors are doing but are more driven by finding the intersection between what people want and what the brand can credibly do. They remember the old adage that it’s better to be meaningful to some than meaningless to everyone.

Those who are responsible for the management of brands need to understand that the critical skills today are of clarity, self-assurance and self-control. Not every opportunity needs to be taken. You don’t necessarily need to have a strategy for Snapchat. But what you do need is the ability to overcommit to the things that make you, you. Look at Patagonia or Hiut Denim. Brands that deliberately make resources scarce to focus on furthering their core mission. That have an intense sense of who they are. That choose not to spam people. You can feel it in everything they do, and in everything they don’t. They’re healthier for it.

Originally published on WARC November 7, 2018