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Author: Jane Hodges Young
October, 2017 Issue

Mirror, mirror on the wall. Is my brand still fair at all?

    It’s a question many companies are asking these days as technology and social media—not to mention—are redefining the way we work, communicate and buy.

    The fear of getting stale has many businesses looking at freshening up their brand—a process that requires much more than a simple logo redesign or new tagline, according to Trini Amador, managing partner of BHC Consulting. BHC is a Healdsburg-based brand strategy team that develops, refreshes or consults on global brand strategy or research projects for hundreds of global, regional and local brands. Among its clients are General Electric, Microsoft, Charles Schwab and Mattel.

    Amador says there could be four positions in a company’s “brand journey.” The first is to build the brand from scratch. Second, if a brand is weak or loses relevance, the need might be to strengthen the brand when it needs improvement. Third, a company many need to change a brand when things aren’t going well and the company needs a structural change. And finally, a company may need to reinforce a brand when business is going fairly well. “It’s important to keep the gas on, even when things are going well, there are always some outages,” he explains.

Getting the mojo back

“There’s no such thing as a tired brand, only a tired brand manager,” Amador says. “Brands don’t go out of style, it’s the effort behind them that generally wanes. Brands can lose touch with their target market, and often the competitive environment changes, and brands don’t keep up. Or, in some cases, an entire business category can move on.”

What are typical signs that a company needs to reboot? “That’s easy,” Amador says. “Competitors are out-innovating you and the business is waning. It took Mattel 20 years to see that the Barbie brand was not sustainable.” (Speaking of that, have you seen all the new versions of the Ken doll? One even has a man bun!)

Amador says brand outages are generally “a slow death. Rarely does a business die overnight. Blaming market forces and customers is usually what most brands do. They say, ‘The customer doesn’t get it,’ or ‘Customers need to be educated.’ If that’s the case, the story is not relevant or differentiated or the product was not developed based on insights (deep knowledge of what causes customers to behave the way they do) that motivate the buyer to act,” Amador explains.

“When sales begin to slip, the brand is decaying. Only innovation can keep the brand relevant.”

A perfect example is Apple. Though mindboggling, 20 years ago, Apple was nearly bankrupt. As part of its reset, Apple looked backwards and rehired Steve Jobs, one of its founders. Jobs loved reliable products, elegantly designed. The Jobs revival at Apple brought us the iPod, the iMac and—10 years ago—the iPhone. The world hasn’t been the same since—and Apple pretty much rules it.

Another example is Harley-Davidson. It, too, almost went bankrupt until it began making a better product. Today, Harley-Davidson is the icon of motorcycles.

Target is yet another example. Once seen as a second-rate discount store, Target began adding designer lines at reasonable prices—and kept the cleanest stores in the discount sector. It earned the nickname “Tar-jay” (as it’s pronounced in French) because…well, it was cool again!

There have been some brand refinements that went south, as well. A few years ago, the SciFi Channel changed its text to Syfy—without realizing the word was slang for Syphilis. And then there was Andersen Consulting, which cut ties with Arthur Andersen and decided to rename the new company “Accenture.” The idea was “accent on the future.” Time magazine reported that it cost more than $100 million to launch the brand and declared it was “one of the worst rebrandings in corporate history.”

Strength in numbers

A perfect example of a successful reboot in the North Bay, is Sonoma County Vintners (formerly known as the Sonoma County Wineries Association). About seven years ago, the group was the recipient of a USDA Value Added Producer Grant, which helps ag concerns create or expand marketing programs, among other things.

“Sonoma County is just so large,” says Jean Arnold Sessions, executive director and former president of Hanzell Vineyards. Before Amador was called in to help refresh the brand, she says, they were a little disjointed. “People knew about Sonoma County, but they also knew about Russian River Valley, Sonoma Valley, etcetera. We were fragmented—not cohesive as a county as a brand. We were just so big we weren’t able to tell a story that wrapped it all together. There was a lack of clarity about the county as a wine region.”

Amador helped them define who they were by asking them what was their core demographic and why do people come to Sonoma? “Then we did a deep dive into what makes us different,” Sessions says.

We learned that people like to discover things, she explains. Sonoma County has lots to discover, from the warmer weather in the Sonoma Valley to the cool breezes at the coast and its Redwood forests. There is cheese, wine, olive oil, farming, ranching, vineyards, fine dining and a wide diversity of places and activities—from zip lining above the coastal Redwoods and sky-diving in Cloverdale, to biking along the rural roads and boating at Lake Sonoma.

“What came out was that outside of California, Sonoma County needed to be known,” Sessions says. So, the new Sonoma County Vintners informally joined forces with two other organizations—Sonoma County Tourism and the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission—both of which were located in the same office building as the Vintners group. “We came together to tell the story of Sonoma County,” Sessions explains. Once a year, the Trio takes Sonoma County on the road to a major market, promoting the story Sonoma Wine Country and encouraging tourism.

One of its accomplishments was passage of a new California state law in 2014 that requires wines made in Sonoma County to bear “Sonoma County” on the front label, along with any vineyard and AVA designations.

Sonoma County Vintners now has about 230 winery members, plus affiliate members. It has its own special events and its own marketing efforts, but works alongside the Tourism and Winegrape organizations to “keep each other’s goals in mind while moving forward in our own organization,” Sessions says.

“The Trio coming together is a big part of what helped launch and solidify Sonoma County. I don’t know of any other places that work in collaboration like this,” Sessions concludes.

Getting down to basics

Refreshing, redefining and repositioning a brand doesn’t happen overnight. “It all starts with a market map,” says Amador. What is the competitive environment? What is the brand’s current position as perceived by its target audience. Where is the brand wanting to go and at what speed, and finally, who is the core target to get it there?

“Most brands make several fatal mistakes at this strategic step,” says Amador. “First, they jump to rebranding and create a new identity, but they don’t do the hard work of determining the insights that motivate their core target. Second, products are made on the factory floor and brands are made in the mind. They think product, not emotion. Third, they focus on too many targets. One segment is more than enough of a challenge to make the brand relevant and differentiated to.”

Amador is particularly wedded to insights, what he refers to as the “beliefs, values, attitudes and perceptions of an audience that motivates them to behave the way they do.”

He says “an insight is based on a core target. ‘Core’ is the term I use throughout this message considering that if I cannot make an emotional connection with a single segment, then my brand will not succeed.”

A brand needs to settle into a clear emotional position in the minds of that core, Amador explains, and ensure its relevancy and press its differentiation in a fresh, integrated and sustained way. “Most brands will make a new logo, put up a website, send out a press release, get some new business cards, maybe develop a new product or service, put in resources for three to six months and then call it a day.”

Innovation, innovation, innovation

The impetus for brand refinement is change. “Just look around at how fast things are moving. Brands are teaching customers to look for innovation—our phone providers, our social media outlets, our auto manufacturers—all of them that are doing good innovation and are conditioning us to look for a new, easier, more convenient way. But are our lawyers, CPAs, the meat market or our mortgage company racing toward making life easier for their local customers?” Amador asks.

He brings it back to and its recent purchase of Whole Foods Market. “Amazon has purchased a grocery chain—the last bastion of retail that is still done the same way it was done when I was a kid. But not for long. Do you think Safeway and Kroger and other grocers haven’t been trying? They have. But now, do you think they’ll try harder to meet the convenience and delivery needs of consumers? Hell, yes,” Amador says. “Do you think when Amazon turns on same day delivery in nearly 500 stores that it will make an impact on the American shopper’s life? Will it hurt the competitors?”

Chances are, yes. Immensely. Which brings us back to brand refinement.

“Building a brand is like building a bird’s nest,” Amador explains. “It’s building the nest with one strategically placed twig at a time, and then noticing that the nest needs to be repositioned or refreshed from time to time.”




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