"The Navigator" News Blog

How (NOT) to Preserve A Brand

One of the more common topics of conversation, in both sales and marketing, is “branding.”  Most of the time, people are talking about how to BUILD a brand.  Instead of that, however, let’s talk about how to UNDO a brand – and with those lessons in mind, we’ll give some tips on keeping a brand whole.

Essentially, your brand is how your customers look at you – or how you want them to look at you.  And it’s true that sometimes, brands need to evolve.  That said, it’s important that, while you’re evolving, you don’t evolve yourself right out of business.  I can think of a couple of great examples I’ve encountered recently.

If you’re a regular reader of mine, you know that I’m a motorcycle enthusiast; I’ve owned several and currently I have a 2010 Harley Road King and a 1978 Honda CB750.  I’m also an avid reader, and I love motorcycle magazines.  A few years ago, I subscribed to Baggers magazine, which had as its focus custom touring motorcycles – primarily Harleys.  Notice I said “had.”  The magazine was part of a huge conglomerate called Source Interlink Publications.

About two years ago, Baggers changed its focus.  Whereas at first, it was focused on customized touring bikes (aka “Baggers”), the focus became overly tattooed guys in flannel pretending that their baggers were sportbikes.  Last year, I got a notice in the mail that my new issue of Baggers was to be the last, as the magazine was shutting down.  My remaining subscription was to be filled by Hot Bike magazine.  Well, that was OK.  While Hot Bike didn’t have touring bikes as its focus, they were going to incorporate Baggers content.

Except that Hot Bike also changed its focus to the same tattooed guys in flannel, now pretending that non-bagged Harleys were sportbikes.  Six issues in, you got it – Hot Bike was done.  Now my subscription would be filled by Motorcyclist magazine. Now we’re a long ways away from my primary interest – custom touring bikes.  Still, Motorcyclist is a long time, established magazine.  Lots of coverage of new bikes, racing, that kind of thing, so I was OK with it.

However, they’d changed their format.  Now they had gone “upscale,” better production quality, more photo essays, more stories on rides that people were doing.  The racing coverage was nearly eliminated and the new bike tests were cut back severely.  Want to guess what happened next?  Motorcyclist lasted TWO issues.  TWO.  Now my subscription will be filled by Cycle World.  This is another long time legacy magazine – which, when I received my first issue, looked, read, and felt exactly like the Motorcyclist that had just died.  Honestly, I’m kind of hoping they lose my name on their mailing list.

You might be thinking that this is more a function of the changing motorcycle market than branding and content decisions.  You would be wrong, I think.  There’s a good reason for that.  Another magazine I read is called American Iron.  Exclusive focus on Harleys, both touring and non-touring, heavy focus on customizing and doing the work yourself.  And throughout this entire period, this magazine has stayed true to its format – and in fact, has INCREASED its frequency.  It’s now coming out thirteen times a year (every four weeks) instead of twelve monthly issues.  It is independently published – not part of the conglomerate, but in the magazine business, that should make their existence tougher, not easier.  Magazine distribution is very much controlled by the big nationals.

Another brand that has managed to trash itself through a very different process is Craftsman Tools.  Craftsman used to be the best- known brand of retail tools.  I differentiate “retail” tools from “professional” brands like Snap-On, Matco, MAC, and Cornwell.  The professional brands can only be bought through independent distributors who sell off tool trucks, and only call on shops and garages.  Craftsman could be bought at any Sears store.

Craftsman wasn’t Snap-On, but it was a good, high quality, American made tool with a lifetime warranty.  They were the choice of the home mechanic.  And then, several years ago, they started offshoring production.  Some brands can offshore production, even to China, and keep quality high. Craftsman didn’t do that.  Suddenly, a 9/16” wrench might not be exactly 9/16” anymore – and when you’re cranking on a bolt, a few thousandths of an inch can be the difference between properly turning a bolt or rounding the head off.  Plus they broke more often, particularly the ratchets and sockets.

Suddenly, Craftsman lost their reputation for quality.  Other brands, particularly Kobalt (sold through Lowe’s), made big inroads.  Kobalt is an interesting case.  They began as a brand made by Snap-On but sold at retail through Lowe’s, and the first few years, that’s how they stayed.  Kobalts of that age were within a tiny amount of being as well made as Snap-On, the standard of the industry.  I have a bunch that I bought back then.

Then, Kobalt did a funny thing.  They also offshored production of most of their tools.  But the quality stayed consistent.  A Kobalt made in China now is basically the same tool as a Kobalt made when they started.  This means that Craftsman quality didn’t have to drop; it dropped because of carelessness and inattention.  Now, Craftsman has announced that they will be retuning production of about half of their tools to the USA; but is it too little, too late?  Now they’re in recovery mode.

So, we have four brands (the three dead bike magazines, plus Craftsman) that have basically ruined their image.  All four did so by basically changing what had appealed to their customer base.  Three due to a desire to “reinvent,” and one by cost-cutting.  So, how can you evolve your brand without killing it?

  1. Start with situational awareness.  Are you trying to grow or survive?  If you’re trying to survive your existing customers aren’t as vital, because they aren’t keeping you afloat.  In this case, finding a brand new customer base is a necessity.
  2. Understand why your customers buy from you.  As long as you’re in growth mode rather than survival mode, you want to keep as many of your current customers as possible while adding new ones.
  3. Define the new customers you’re trying to attract while keeping #2 in mind.  Maybe the only thing you have to change is your marketing.  Is it possible that all you need to do is create awareness within a new market segment?  This can be particularly effective with legacy brands that are still viable, but not as well known to younger customers.
  4. Move gradually.  Big changes can disconcert legacy customers, which will run off the base you’re trying to protect.  Think evolution, not revolution.
  5. Whatever you do, don’t cut quality of your product or service.  If you cut your quality, all the branding in the world won’t help you.

Basically, you have some very good examples of how NOT to do it above, and if you find yourself in doubt, think “Bizarro Branding;” do the opposite of what they did and you’ll be fine.