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Can You Teach An Old Brand New Tricks?

April 1, 2019

Can you teach an old brand new tricks?I recently met with the owner of a consumer goods business – let’s call it OldCorp – that is 90 years old. It’s a family business. He’s the second generation at the helm. His parents bought the firm, in a distressed sale, during the Great Depression. Back then, very little attention was paid to branding. You just slapped a label on your product and went door to door, trying to get retailers to stock it. The family did well for themselves that way, growing the business into a regional player. Today, they’re a good, solid business, but still a regional player. That would be fine except, in the intervening decades, two competitors have grown to national prominence. One other has become a much better-known regional force. While OldCorp can still count on its regular customers to keep it going. It can’t grow because most consumers can name the top three brands in the market but can’t ever think of the fourth – OldCorp. It finds itself in the awkward position of being a 90-year-old challenger brand. Is it too late for it to make a run at the market leaders?

Hell no. Brands may lose a little energy over the years but they never die. There’s always a way to come back. OldCorp has to start by taking an unvarnished look at its current positioning. They have to study how the market leaders attained their top spots. They have to figure out why their regional competitor surpassed them as well. Then they have to learn why their repeat customers stuck with them while so many others went with the newer brands.

The bad news is the research required to gain all these insights will be expensive. It always is with consumer goods because the retailer acts as a kind of screen between the wholesaler and the market. The wholesaler can’t be there at the place of purchase to ask the consumer why he bought OldCorp’s product or that of a competitor. It will require surveys and focus groups to get those sorts of answers. Again, expensive.

Once armed with those answers, however, a number of different paths may appear.

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Feature popularity – Research could reveal that OldCorp has a feature, previously unappreciated by management, that just appeals to some people. Assuming the competing brands don’t have the feature or, if they do, their similar features are weak by comparison, it’s a differentiation that OldCorp can exploit. OldCorp – the only brand with the XYZ formula. This kind of exclusivity is always valuable.

Market leaders’ inauthentic claim – What if the market leaders attained their positions by making false claims like: “Just like Grandma used to make” or “Four out of five dentists agree” or “Takes a licking and keeps on ticking”. There’s no crime in exposing the hyperbole of one’s foes as misleading. When soulless corporations owned by private equity concerns start waxing poetic about Grandma, it should be fair game. Pulling back the curtain on powerful competitors is always effective – and quite a bit of fun.

Ethnic popularity – It may turn out that OldCorp’s remaining dedicated market is predominantly of one ethnic group. There are a lot of different ways this could have happened. OldCorp might have struck an ethnic chord back in the day and a love for its product just got passed down through the generations. Or the leaders in the category could have ignored the ethnic group in its marketing. Either way, OldCorp now has the option of becoming the market leader in serving this one population.

Age matters – Old guys rule. The market loves anything first of its kind. Think of all the old musicians who are beloved by young people. Think of all the sports leagues that now routinely don “throw-back” uniforms. The fact that a brand has been around a long time is, in itself, a powerful differentiator. OldCorp could take the position of “We taught the other guys everything they know – but not everything we know.”

The point is, challenger brands, even old ones, always have positioning options. But it takes research to figure out which ones will be most valuable in making a serious run at the market leaders. The example I used, OldCorp, is a consumer product so, as mentioned, the research could involve some serious investment. But in most other situations, especially B2B situations, the investment will be negligible relative to revenue and projected ROI. Don’t let your old brand succumb to an “inevitable," also-ran status. Don’t feel that its too late to change. You’re only as old as you feel.


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