In connection with my last blog post on brands in which I had written about how brands that take a long hiatus can make a comeback, I would now like to think and write about hugely successful brands that lose their way. Not that they disappear, just that they seem to be stuck in a rut and can’t seem to find their way out of it.
This state of inertia could well be because the market is in such a fine equilibrium, there is really no need to innovate, or try anything new and more relevant. At one level, you could argue that that is a great state to be in, where the industry and the brand are doing well, growing at the natural rate. On the other hand, it could well be that the industry is itself in a rut but doesn’t know it or want to recognize it.
Take the soft drinks beverages industry, dominated by Coca-Cola and Pepsico. At one time, for those of us old enough to remember it, it was such a fight for market share and for brand salience that the two cola brands were perpetually at war. There was plenty of innovation in product, in delivery systems and in brand communication, with consumers actively identifying with their brand of cola. For the past two decades or so, they appear to have made some kind of peace with each other; rather the industry has settled into such an equilibrium that there is hardly any innovation worth talking about. Of course, they’re both doing sugar-free, zero-calorie, etc as new variants, and plenty of other meaningless innovations trying to attract millennials. But the sameness is so dull and all-prevailing that the two cola giants started to actually be each other, as I had written long ago in a LinkedIn post. They were trapped in an identity crisis, as it were.
When and how does a brand know that it is losing its way? Or that it is still strong?
When product sales are still good and the brand is still growing, or at the very least, maintaining its market share. Check.
When repeat purchases from existing consumers are still good. Check.
One word of caution, though. Repeat purchases can be good when there is very little competition in the industry, and a few brands dominate the market.
Open up the competitive scenario to consider wider competition from other categories or even industries, and see if the brand is still as strong. For example, if Coke and Pepsi didn’t just consider each other, but other beverages such as juices, smoothies, Starbucks coffee or any other branded equivalent and even brands of flavoured water, how much share of wallet and share of mind do they have?
Study consumer perceptions about your brand as regularly as possible and see if they’re holding steady or weakening. Better still, beef that up with studying purchase and intent to purchase.
To my mind, these are still the best gauges of how well a brand is doing, since consumers’ affinity for a brand and identification with it are what make brands. Also consider people’s views about brands outside a formal research study; the internet and social media make it possible for companies to track conversations about brands and keep their finger on the pulse of the market. Are people still talking about your brand, and hopefully in a positive way?
Many a time, success goes to brands’ heads, and they think it isn’t necessary to engage with consumers anymore. Market leadership in an industry sometimes even leads to cutbacks in marketing and advertising spends with the money being spent elsewhere, be it in a more profitable product line or in new product innovations and launches. Companies tend to invest hugely in building a brand where they taste early success but once the brand has achieved leadership, cutbacks take place.
And sometimes, companies invest in advertising and brand communications, but follow the same tried and tested strategy and creative idea. Tried and tired as well. Until the brand’s communication itself falls into a set pattern, a monotonous rut, to the extent that consumers have stopped noticing it anymore. It is one such brand that I will take up in greater detail this time.
Absolut Vodka, one of the world’s leading brands of vodka, has been extremely successful at building a large base of vodka drinkers around the world, and many of those are Absolut consumers. They have both grown the market for vodka and grown their share of it. The vodka was great I am sure, but the advertising for it was even greater, contributing hugely to Absolut’s success. It punned on the brand name Absolut in ways that always suggested the superiority of the vodka. Then, it took the unique shape of the bottle and turned it into famous city landmarks from all over the world. This went on for years, decades even. It built a very successful brand property around its art initiatives.
Great. Where’s the problem, you might ask. The problem is that what took Absolut to the pinnacle of success is probably not what will ensure it stays there. The competitive framework is pretty much the same as before, but Absolut has to fight not merely other vodkas, but whisky and wine which are most drinkers’ ultimate destination. Besides, having won a large share of vodka consumers to itself, Absolut now has to offer them a differentiated benefit that creates an emotional bond. The Absolut bottle as city landmarks doesn’t cut ice anymore.
Besides, Absolut is now part of Pernod Ricard since 2008 and it needs to align itself with the parent company’s overall strategy (or what I have recommended for them), without losing its individual brand identity and character. I have been thinking about the need for a new strategy and communication for Absolut, especially since I read about Pernod Ricard’s acquisition of it in 2008. What kept me from putting down my thoughts and ideas for Absolut is that it would provide even more fodder for unprofessional idiot bosses at Perfect Relations, BBDO India and elsewhere, who have been trying their damnedest to make me my former colleague at Ogilvy Delhi, Sarada. Clearly stating that I am not her, nor anyone else, I am sharing my brand strategy for Absolut as well as campaign ideas that are meant to take the brand forward for at least the next decade.
Absolut’s own website suggests that they are positioning the brand as a Swedish vodka. That would be a huge error, in my opinion, for reasons that I state in the brand strategy document. Instead, the brand positioning I am recommending for Absolut has room for leveraging and showcasing the brand’s Swedish character in a truly international way. You may click the link below to read all about the new brand strategy for Absolut as well as the new brand campaign.
Giving Absolut a Brand New Direction
There comes a time in every brand’s life, when it has to review its position in the consumer’s mind and life, as well as its role in the company’s larger plans for the future. No brand can afford to take consumers for granted, and there is a need every few years or at least every decade to refresh the brand’s relationship with them, taking it forward to a deeper and more meaningful level.
I think that time was long ago for Absolut. However, it is never too late to change tack and reconnect with consumers, especially since the new direction for the brand gives them a new reason to prefer Absolut while also giving them a new chance to make a contribution in their social sphere.
Here’s hoping Absolut will build on its gains of the past and achieve even greater heights for itself and for Pernod Ricard.