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The art of brand evolution: How a "timeless" vision and collaboration are the keys to success

Posted by Matt Statman on April 10th, 2014 at 3:54 pm

Timeless brands are timeless for a reason – they effectively establish a vision that not only answers the needs of today's consumers, but are also expansive enough that they can be responsive to future needs as well. There is an art to finding the perfect marriage between a product, the goals of the company behind it, and the needs of the consumers who may use it. But when the craft of positioning is in the hands of experts, the resulting work can be eternally magical.

All brands need to evolve to remain relevant. But improvements or shifts in a brand’s offering do not always necessitate the need to change the core positioning or tagline. For example, Nike is the pinnacle of achievement in this arena. "Just do it" is an enduring assertion of empowerment that has proven to be a valid call to action for decades. It’s a universal nudge, yet personally resonant to consumers from the budding athlete to the experienced marathoner, regardless of age, ethnicity or demographic. While Nike has certainly evolved as a brand, focusing on product innovation, attracting new consumers, securing strategic athletic partnerships and more; its famed tagline has stood the test of time.

BMW’s, "The Ultimate Driving Machine", has also stood the test of time. As its product line has evolved to reflect the changing desires and driving habits of today’s consumer, its tagline has remained relevant, connecting with the aspirational desire to drive a high performance vehicle. Its product has endured countless evolutions in the decades since this tagline was invented, but the essence of the brand has never wavered.

What is interesting to me are the brands that got it right for a period of time, but subsequently “lost it” after pivoting in a new direction. Burger King is a good example of this. After years of multiple brand campaigns that resulted in mediocre sales results, BK turned itself into a brand that truly connected with young men, a heavy consumer in the fast food category. With their Subservient Chicken campaign, the brand aggressively defied the long-standing category rules of marketing and launched a series of programs that challenged rational thinking through bizarre quirkiness and experimentation. In doing so, it delivered some of the best results the brand had seen in years. Today, following a sale of the company, the brand has softened its approach considerably and, in turn, lost the cache it worked so hard to achieve.

While creating marketing campaigns and taglines that focus on core audience segments and heavy users can be highly effective, it can also be alienating to peripheral audiences. McDonald’s tagline, “i’m lovin’ it”, is an attempt to maintain an aspect of personalization through the use of first person communication while being broad enough to take on whatever characteristics or definitions a consumer applies. It also gives the brand room to evolve as they try to respond to changing dietary habits and legally mandated nutritional guidelines.

And then there’s Axe. After generating extraordinary results for years in the sleepy deodorant category with an outlandish campaign that pushed the boundaries on male/female relationship stereotypes, targeting the ‘sex-crazed millennial male’, the brand has opted for a far less controversial approach. "Make love, not war" is a watered-down theme that addresses sexuality in a significantly less motivating, but certainly more politically correct manner. How this revised position will affect their ability to fend off competition remains to be seen but it may just open the door for new category entrants.

I am convinced that the most vexing challenge for a brand – either one that has already established a powerful brand proposition or a brand that is still searching for one – is the ever-changing consumer. Bill Gates is credited with saying, "People over-estimate the amount of change in any one year and under-estimate the change over ten years". Society is constantly changing, and through the influence of technology change is happening faster today than what we have seen historically. This requires brands to know their consumers and their expectations better than before. Brands must respond in a timely fashion to changing needs by listening, interacting and actively leveraging consumers to help define their future.

The future is not up to me. Nor is it up to marketers or brands alone. The future, my friend, belongs to the consumer.  The next round of brand winners will be those that can adapt accordingly to the needs, wants and demands of the consumer and truly become a product of collaboration.

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