Saving Yourself From Brand Death

The Chicago Tylenol murders occurred in the Autumn of 1982, when seven people died after taking pain-relief capsules that had been poisoned. These poisonings involved Extra-Strength Tylenol medicine capsules which had been laced with potassium cyanide. Johnson and Johnson’s classic response to the situation has become a textbook case for crisis management. (The parent company of McNeil distributed warnings to hospitals and distributors and halted Tylenol production and advertising. On October 5, 1982, it issued a nationwide recall of Tylenol products; an estimated 31 million bottles were in circulation, with a retail value of over US$100 million. The company also advertised in the national media for individuals not to consume any products that contained acetaminophen. When it was determined that only capsules were tampered with, they offered to exchange all Tylenol capsules already purchased by the public with solid tablets. Apparently the good folks at Toyota weren’t listening the day that was discussed in B-school.) With such a great lesson for all of us in Marketing, you wonder why brands are still struggling with this.

While cases of Sudden Brand Death get the most media attention, many brands are suffering from Slow Brand Death, which very often costs just as much, but goes undetected. Whether through lack of attention, lack of focus, overall neglect, misunderstanding or incompetence, Brand Death is avoidable.

Here are the symptoms of Slow Brand Death:

1. Decreased customer loyalty: If your brands are showing signs of losing loyal customers, you may be suffering from the early onset of Slow Brand Death. One of the key factors in identifying strong brands is the loyalty of their customer base and, indeed, customer willingness to pay more for the brand. If you find customers willing to switch to other brands, you need to explore the cause and address it. Cadillac faced this situation and seems to be making strides to recapture their historic “bold design” positioning with the prestigious Escalade and the CRS models. While they may not win back their last group of loyal customers, they may be creating loyalty with a whole new generation of affluent customers, critical to revitalizing the brand and growing sales.

2. Lack of differentiation/distinction: If you are noticing that your competitors are looking more and more like you and that you are hearing the dreaded “c-word” (“commodity”) in management meetings and discussion, commoditization may be attacking your category and your brand. A lack of differentiation from your competitors is a sign that you may be vulnerable to Slow Brand Death. If your product/service offering is truly not distinctly different from your competitors, create differentiation by taking actions (internal) and communications to own one of the compelling attributes on which customers base their purchase decisions. If Morton Salt and Evian (water) can be strongly differentiated, demanded brands, so can your brand.

3. Increased price sensitivity or declining price: As stated in number one, a strong brand can command a price premium. If you find that you are not able to do this and that you are experiencing more price sensitivity among customers, you may be seeing the first sign of Slow Brand Death. A swing through any Burger King can give you a sense of this these days, with their emphasis on their dollar menu items. Burger King, unable to compete on other, more differentiated bases, is trying to hold onto its customers through price promotions – never a strong positioning for any brand.

4. Lack of internal alignment with the brand promise: If your employees aren’t clear about the promise your brand is making in the marketplace, how do you expect the customer to be clear about it? One of the most often over-looked aspects of brand management is the need to practice internal branding (also known as integrated branding) or the process of educating and aligning all jobs, processes and operations to consistently deliver the brand promise. If your company is not set up to deliver on the brand promise, your brand-customer encounters may vary to the point of eroding your brand strength. How many times has airline advertising promised you an enjoyable flight with superb service? And how many times has your airline experience delivered that? It’s no wonder that the only profitable airlines in the US are the discount airlines like Southwest, Jet Blue and Midwest Express – they promise very simply to fly you where you want to go at a low price and they deliver on that promise. The larger airlines should take a lesson.

Overall market confusion will lead to Slow Brand Death. The very culture of your company may be leading your brands to continually erode and weaken by a lack of commitment to maintaining strong values – and over-emphasizing short-term results over long-term success.

Once your brand is at risk of Sudden Brand Death, there is little you can do except address it quickly, decisively and aggressively. No obfuscation, denial, or half-way responses. The Johnson & Johnson Tylenol response is still the gold standard for minimizing long-term damage to your brand.

However, if you are facing Slow Brand Death, you have the luxury of more time and you can go about addressing the causes of brand death in a way that will not only avoid further brand damage, but that can actually strengthen and enhance your brand.

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