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How to Destroy Your Brands?

By Paul Zhou, Group CEO, Illuminera

 

Marketing is a risky business.  Every year the marketplace is littered with brands that fail miserably. Some fall from past grace, some go belly up barely after launch. It is rare that people get to look up and hail the glorious dawn of a blockbuster brand.


Yes, competition is ruthless. Ever since the supermarket shelves became rows after rows of products with little differences, the fate for most brands has been rather dim. 


Yet, is competition really the culprit of most failures? After witnessing the rises and, much more frequently, the falls of brands, and being personally responsible for some of the failures and, luckily, successes, the authors believe firmly that the answer is no. The blame is, in most cases, squarely on marketers themselves. With so many marketing literatures and case studies abound, it is surprising that so many failures are attributable to simple and common pitfalls in marketing strategy making. Below are some of the more frequently found ones:


Internal focus vs. Consumer-centric


Consumer centricity has been in fashion in recent years. Many consumer goods companies installed programs and policies with the intention to ensure their staffs adopt a consumer-centric perspective. The result? While a few probably have benefited, the majority merely paid lip service. 


Instead of consumer-centric, many companies are actually self-centric or even boss-centric. A major eye care brand has been languished in China and barely scratched the surface after some twenty years in China. A peek into the critical insight in the category quickly identified a misalignment between the brand’s positioning strategy and the category triggers and barriers among Chinese consumers. This finding made all the sense to the local marketing team. But what happened afterwards? The company’s regional team simply ignored the China team’s suggestion and dictated the strategy for yet another year.


After entering China for five years, a major weight management company has incurred large loses and is still searching for the right China strategy. The company’s initial strategy of focusing on young white collar females actually seemed to have gained traction at the beginning with customers exhibited high satisfaction and some service centers reached break-even points. Yet that strategy was scraped largely because the folks back in the headquarters believed that their strategy of focusing on anyone with weight problems back in the home market should also work in China. As such, a strategy review and market research studies were called to assess the potential with males, kids, and the elderly.  When fresh evidences against such a broad targeting strategy were produced, the management simply discredited them and ordered yet another round of review and research. Now five years in China, while competitors have flourished, the company has managed to have a much smaller presence than before.


Fell for buzzwords


If one spends just one night hopping from channel to channel and watching all the TV commercials, he or she would know all the hottest buzzwords of the moment. What are hot at this moment: organic, green, LOHAS, self-expression, …The zealot marketers demonstrate towards buzzwords makes one wonder whether marketing strategy has been hijacked by the latest buzz in town.


Take the buzzword “health” as an example, a quick scan would identify the following brands boasting about they healthiness: a fast-food chain named KFC, and a potato chip produced by Orion.


Take the buzzword “green” as an example, several years ago, Prince, a brand beloved by kids and alike for its chocolaty sandwich biscuits and the Prince figure, also went green.  Prince was featured in TV shows and PR events titled “Saving the earth with Prince!”. The results? Core brand users found it difficult to related to the brand and other users were not given a good reason why they should eat Prince. After several years of disappointing results, Kraft repositioned Prince as the companion for kids, with the Prince figure enlivening kids’ fantasy of fighting evils in cartoons and computer games.  As a result Prince has been enjoying fast growth since the change.


Wishful thinking as the strategy


It is one of human being’s fallacies to replace reality with wishes. Companies are no different. Very often, a desired result becomes the strategy.


Over the years, the authors have heard many mandates when working on brand strategy. Here are some examples:


- A vegetable protein beverage brand dictated that whatever their new brand strategy would look like, it would have to grab market share from milk simply because the milk category is huge.  This decision was only changed after insights proved that milk was almost inconvincible in its own game and that the company’s products actually appealed to needs domains where milk did not have a role. 


- A snack company invested heavily to push their snacks onto consumer’s breakfast table. Why? Because their category had the lowest penetration in that usage occasion. New products subsequently launched targeting the breakfast occasion did not perform well and in reality might have diluted the image of the snack brand that was chosen for the expansion into breakfast.


- It is even more common for brand owners to demand that new products absolutely should not cannibalize existing cash cows. Kodak certainly can be counted among the most sincere believers of this philosophy.


Certainly there are many other pitfalls in marketing strategy making. Yet regardless what the pitfalls might look like, they all share the same middle name “ignorance of the consumer truth”.  In all of the cases mentioned, failures could have been prevented if the companies simply showed a bit more respect to consumer insights. Regardless of the symptoms, with a large dose of consumer truth, and a small amount of common sense, many of the marketing pitfalls can be avoided without much efforts.