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Arindam Chaudhuri, Editor-in-Chief, 4Ps B&M Chief Consulting Editor's Desk
Rajita Chaudhuri
Arindam Chaudhuri, Editor-in-Chief, 4Ps B&M Editor-in-Chief
Dr. Arindam Chaudhuri
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How to reinvent a brand
Reinventing a brand is a huge challenge. There are times, however, when managers don’t have choice; they have to reinvent their brand if it is to remain relevant
Issue Date - 12/01/2012
At Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, the branding faculty defines a brand to be a set of associations linked to a name, mark or symbol associated with a product or service. The key word in this definition is associations; a brand is all the connections people make when they see a particular name or symbol. When people see the Dom Perignon, for instance, they generally think about celebration, luxury, expense and special. When they see Apple they think about innovation, technology, style and Steve Jobs. All of the associations are part of the brand.

The associations around a brand can endure for many years. This is one of the reasons why brands are so valuable; they are long lasting assets. Coke is more than 100 years old, Guinness is more than 200 years old and Harvard is more than 300 years old. Brands don’t necessarily fade away; there is no reason why a brand couldn’t continue for 500 years or more. The problem is that the associations built around a brand can be exceptionally difficult to change. Once people form a connection it becomes hard to break it. BMW is closely linked to German engineering and Volvo is linked to safety; it is hard to get people to stop making the connections. The stronger a brand, the harder it can be to evolve it because the associations are so deeply entrenched. It is easy to shift the associations around a new or relatively unknown brand, because few people have deeply held beliefs. It is much harder to change how people think about well established brands like McDonald’s or Sony.

Nonetheless, there are times when reinventing a brand is essential. Changes in technology, for instance, may force a company to evolve its brand to keep up with the latest developments. Competitive moves might also mean that a company has to reinvent its brand to remain unique and relevant in the world.

Reinventing a brand is often called repositioning a brand; the task is the same, changing the associations built around a name or mark, or changing the position in the market. Repositioning is difficult in the best of times but there are two situations that present unique big challenges. First, it is hard to reposition a brand when the core business is struggling. The problem is that repositioning takes time and money. When a business encounters slumping sales, it is difficult to invest in a brand repositioning. Indeed, when business is soft executives often do precisely the opposite thing and cut spending on branding. Weak results can set up a negative spiral, where poor sales lead to cuts in market, which in turn lead to weak sales and further cuts in marketing. Repositioning a brand while caught in this viscous spiral is virtually impossible; the resources are too limited.

Second, it is hard to reposition a brand when it has slipped from the public view. To establish associations, a brand needs a certain amount of visibility; you can’t define a brand if people don’t see it. Brands that slip from the visibility remain static, since there is nothing to change the associations that exist in the market. The brand gradually loses awareness and the brand’s associations or meaning doesn’t change. Oprah Winfrey, one of the world’s strongest brands in the world of entertainment, will likely find this a challenge in the coming years. When she had her daily talk show, Oprah could continuously enhance and refine her brand because she had enormous visibility; she was on television every day, speaking directly to millions of people. Now that she has ended her daily show she will be less visible, and this will make it harder for her to reposition her brand.

Four things to focus on

Managers thinking about repositioning their brand should focus on the following four things when planning the effort:
Realistically evaluate the situation:
It is very easy to underestimate the challenge of repositioning a brand. The concept of repositioning isn’t difficult, and it is easy to lay it out on paper. The problem is that repositioning is far easier said than done. A manager with just a bit of optimism can quickly embark on a repositioning campaign that has little hope for success. Before attempting a brand repositioning, a manager should evaluate the proposition and the odds of success. The first task is to understand the current brand perceptions, looking at what people think. The focus here should not be on the desired positioning, it should be on the actual perceptions that exist in the market. Understanding what people believe is critical; you have to know where you are starting from.

The second step is to identify the desired positioning. This involves understanding trends in a market and competition. In particular, the step involves asking a simple question: where do we want to be? Where are the best opportunities for us? Once the desired state is known, a manager can then compare it to the current situation. The key question is determining how far the brand is from the desired position. The larger the gap, the harder it will be to reposition the brand, especially if it currently has high awareness.

It is helpful to consider the challenge on two dimensions: target and meaning. Target speaks to who buys the brand, in particular which group of customers is most important. Meaning is what the brand stands for, the associations and benefits. Trying to move on one dimension is much easier than moving on both. It is easier to position to a different audience with the same basic meaning, or change the meaning with the same audience, than moving on both dimensions.

There are times where a repositioning is simply not a great idea; the gap is so large that the initiative is not likely to succeed regardless of how well it is executed. In this case, it is best to consider launching a new brand that will have all new associations. Building a new brand is an expensive undertaking, but if repositioning isn’t likely to succeed it may be the best option.

Engage the organisation: Brands are shaped by many things, but perhaps the most powerful force is a company’s employees. In any company, front-line employees have an enormous impact. Thus, for a repositioning to succeed employees must be engaged. They have to understand the new positioning and believe it is the right approach. It isn’t enough for employees to accept the shift; they need to believe in it and be excited about it. A key task for anyone responsible for repositioning a brand, then, is to communicate internally, both informing and exciting employees.

Create visibility: Without visibility a repositioning can’t succeed; if people don’t see your brand or hear about your brand, they can’t understand and embrace the new positioning. The best repositioning in the world will fail without considerable visibility. For this reason, a brand going through a repositioning needs to focus heavily on getting in the public eye; people have to see the brand and pay attention. One way to do this is through paid advertising and promotions; you can buy visibility, even in today’s cluttered media world. During a repositioning effort, it makes sense to substantially increase spending. General Motors, for instance, sharply increased spending on advertising for Cadillac while trying to reposition the brand as younger and performance oriented.
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