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Build A Flexible Brand

A brand is the relationship between a marketable asset and its market. Like every other relationship, its going to change over time. Change, after all, is the only constant. Unfortunately, history is rife with examples of brands that were too rigid to change with their markets. Those brands are now distant memories. Brands have to be able to change because market needs change. Someone pointed out that in every era, pundits of the time claimed that change was happening faster then than ever before. The 60s experienced faster change than the 50s. The 70s more than the 60s, and so on. But today, we truly are in the “evolving present”. (I wish I had coined that term but, alas, someone else did.) And we’re all dealing with the massive disruption that is COVID-19. Today change is evolving along multiple dimensions. If you define your brand by the thing that you sell, it’s going to be in trouble when your market doesn’t need that thing anymore.

Have you ever asked someone what they do for a living? They almost always answer by telling you what they sell. Next time, be on the lookout for it. The problem is most businesses also define themselves that way. They lock themselves into a role of purveyor of X. When the customer needs Y, they look for another vendor. And, when the customer no longer needs X, the brand dies. The worst part about it? This mortal wound is self-inflicted. The business has actually trained the customer to believe all they can expect from it is X.

Rigidity is is not necessarily a death knell for business. If you’re a manufacturer of valves for ocean-going ships you can probably afford to be a little rigid. That is, as long as they keep building ships that need valves. But most businesses operate in more dynamic markets that change much more rapidly.

To be clear, we’re not talking about disruption here. That’s the sort of change that wipes out whole economies either through technological advances or, as we learned last year, social upheaval. The change I’m talking about is that incremental, almost indiscernible, change. The kind of change that creeps up on blissfully unaware management and eat its lunch.

Case in point is Sears. Stop me if you’ve heard me say this before but Sears should have become Amazon. In 1888 Sears wiped out general stores – the kind you see in Westerns – all over the country. By publishing their famous catalog, they originated the concept of remote purchasing.That meant if you were willing to wait a few months for delivery, you could have much more choice and avoid getting gouged by the local shopkeeper. Sears was king. As the population grew more urban, Sears opened giant department stores in every city. Sears stopped publishing its catalog in 1993. Less than one year later, Amazon sold its first book online. Sears management had let its brand calcify. They let the upstart Amazon beat them at the game they themselves invented.

Sears’ branding problem was they never thought about the true nature of the relationship they shared with their customer. They never investigated what they really meant to their customer. Their catalog set buyers free from a shopkeeper’s monopolistic hold on their town. When Sears added their own the stores they were providing buyers with more convenient options. Sears should have asked themselves, How can we give our customers even more convenience, even more freedom? If they had, they would have beat Amazon to the internet. They positioned as a retail store (rigid); they should have positioned as the consumer’s liberator (flexible). Amazon did to Sears what Sears did to the general store.

This leads us to the easy way to ensure your brand remains flexible. Stand for something above and beyond what you sell or how you sell it. Look for the meaningful connection between your business and your market. Defining that relationship is strategy. Everything else is tactics.


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