How Can Brands Grow Without Growing Old?

Sometime in 2019, I had written a blog post about brands ageing well and in it I had lamented the fact that every brand wants to chase millennials and Gen Z, whether it makes sense for the brand or not. Therefore, every brand also wants to always be young, hip, cool and trendy, whether it is appropriate or not. I have also been writing that a brand ought to stay focused on its target consumer and on its core values, instead.

A lot actually depends on the product category too. For example, in aerated beverages as well as fashion, a youthful appearance and attitude is seen as important. Why that should be so of only aerated drinks and not any other is puzzling, but I suppose some of it can be explained by the product’s attributes such as bubbles, its fizzy and tingling nature as well as the explosion of taste, when one sips it. In apparel, it is probably for aesthetic and cosmetic reasons, as younger people definitely look better and are able to carry off more types of clothes than older folks.

In cars, on the other hand, especially luxury cars, by the time a person can actually afford to buy one, he or she is at least over 40 if not over 50 years of age. This is certainly the case in India, and perhaps overseas as well. Unless, of course, it is a perquisite provided by the company they work for and even then, it is offered only to people above a certain level in the corporation, and you again end up with a 40-50-year-old owner. Some brands, such as sports cars and SUVs target a younger consumer at least through communication as the vehicles are designed for that mindset and manner of driving.

Sportier luxury cars tend to have a more youthful brand image, as do SUVs; Image: John Cameron on Unsplash

In wines and spirits, as I have written before, where ageing and maturation play an important role in the product, there is a premium placed on age. Here, age is valued for its knowledge, lived experience, discernment, maturity of taste and well-informed cultural world-view.

Then, there was the time when Facebook was losing subscribers or users to Instagram, which is also owned by FB, but ought it to have changed its strategy because its younger subscribers were shifting to Instagram? I would think not, but then the company has been plagued by so many other problems since then, than they have finally decided to rebrand themselves as Meta. It takes the attention away from the problem areas, but I am not sure how much it helps the brand strategy.

There is always the natural ageing of brands that takes place in its or the product’s lifecycle and companies have to find ways to deal with it. This certainly seems to have been the case with FB then. Ideally, the best way to tackle this is through careful thinking at the strategy stage and monitoring it right through, until it has been achieved and the brand is now ready to move to the next stage.

In this piece, I would like to share my thoughts on how brands and companies can better track their strategies, and decide to move to the next stage or strategy 2.0 or 3.0 as the case may be.

A brand strategy when envisioned, is usually for a period of 5 to 10 years and it ought to be given that kind of time to bear fruit. During these years, the brand’s performance ought to be closely tracked and monitored against strategy. During these years, it will also be broken down into shorter-term strategies and goals, of say, a year or two years. There will therefore be enough information coming back to the company from sales, sales department’s feedback, customers’ views, repeat purchase, etc. to know if the brand is gaining traction or not. These are also important feedback for course correction, tweaking sales efforts, communication, media, as required.

At the end of the 5- or 10-year period, when the brand has achieved the strategy and goal it set out for itself, it’s time to progress to the next stage. This is what I call brand strategy 2.0 and this is where I find many companies and brands going off-track. They either get diverted because of some new trend, new competitor, new need to chase a younger customer, new research findings, or else get blindsided by a new media or marketing phenomenon, such as the digital disruption has certainly been.

It’s important to cut through the noise and stay focused on what matters. The core brand values, the target customer and the brand positioning and promise. Even for the brand positioning to change or express itself in a new way after several years, it takes careful recalibration and a lot of thought. Then too, what ought not to change are the brand’s core values and the core target consumer. Unless there are any tectonic shifts or industry-wide changes in the marketplace, brands ought to stay focused on the task and strategy at hand.

At this stage examine the pros and cons of making changes in target consumer, product and market segment and what the implications of making such changes might be. This ought to reveal whether the tweaks are worth pursuing or not.

Having been involved with the work on Seagram (now Pernod Ricard) and its brands at Ogilvy Delhi, from the time the company came to India, I have been observing what many of the brands are doing even after having left the agency decades ago. And I have to say much of what I see is not just disappointing, it is clearly off strategy. 100 Pipers is about being remembered for good, when the original strategy was about the whisky being pure music, Blender’s Pride has become a fashion tour, when the brand was about the spirit of hospitality, and Royal Stag is not about purity as quality anymore, but about living life large.

In the case of Royal Stag, I think the brand team at the agency and client end seem to have been sidetracked by the idea of “mega” in cricket, music and movies that the brand had developed as surrogate properties for communication, since it is strictly regulated in India. When the progression in my mind – given the success of Royal Stag – should have been to interpret the purity-as-quality product benefit in terms of the brand now having become a classic or a new standard in whiskies in India.

These are some examples to indicate how companies and brands can go off-track in the strategy progression. I have noticed some terrible things happen in the world of Scotch Whisky as well. Where age, maturity, sophistication and elegance matter even more. It is in this context that I would like to share my thoughts and ideas on two iconic whisky brands from Pernod Ricard, on which I had shared my corporate brand strategy and ideas quite some time ago.

Whisky is about age and maturity; Image: Pixabay

I take a comprehensive look at Pernod Ricard’s Scotch whisky brand portfolio, examine what needs to be added and modified in order to compete better with the Scotch whiskies of Diageo. Next, I consider what the brand strategy and communication ideas ought to be for the next stage of Chivas Regal Scotch Whisky as well as The Glenlivet Single Malt Whisky. These brands too have erred and gone off strategy, at least from what I see of their communication. You can read why, as well as my thoughts and ideas for Chivas and The Glenlivet by clicking the link below.

Most old and well-established brands face this problem sometime or the other in their lives. Of how to grow their brands, their customer base, or depth of consumption without growing old. Well, chasing younger consumers or trying to be cool and hip are not always the best answers. It would be advisable to go back to brand strategy, see what of it needs to change if at all, in order to address newer customers, newer market requirements, etc. And then make the minor modifications necessary, without ideally changing the brand’s core values or core target consumer. It helps to keep the core target consumer segment the same, as even if the older or regular customers have aged with the brand, new consumers are always likely to join the core consumer segment.

An example in luxury cars comes to mind. At the height of the 2008 financial crisis, Mercedes Benz introduced compact Merc models, A Class and B Class, to overcome the problem of affordability, it appears. They might have even been targeting younger customers with these new models. To me it would have made better sense if the models delivered the same Mercedes brand promise, under the same brand positioning. That way, they would have ensured that the new smaller models are not seen as cheaper, and that the Mercedes brand still stood for excellent automotive engineering. Yet another way that Mercedes can manage to stay youthful and energetic is through its AMG badge, which is associated with sporty race cars, although they ought to use AMG branding sparingly and intelligently.

Here we are then. We are all growing old, consumers and brands. And if we are growing old together, even better. The best thing to do would be to acknowledge that, find ways to relate to the world even as it changes all around us. It’s always best not to change who we are and what we stand for, at a fundamental level.  

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