What Happens When Great Brands Let Go Of The Reigns

When I was shit from shinolaa young lad and I would stumble upon some piece of popular culture I thought truly great, I’d run excitedly by my father to show him what I’d found.

Be it a piece of music, a film or an off-the-shelf product, his reaction was often the same and most often this verbatim quote of his own…”Just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s crap”.

This was validation in our house, though the implication that it was only by pure chance that it wasn’t crap was loud and clear. Still it did give one a bump for having the discerning eye to see through the tinsel to the greatness underneath.  

The older I get the more I find this phrase popping into conversation, but the fact is you have to have seen, heard and been thoroughly disgusted by a lot to feel the truth of it.

Just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s crap

my dad

How does this relate to Brands? If it hasn’t been done already, one could draw the arch of a typical brand’s lifecycle – from the early halcyon days of excitedly building, of solving a problem, of delighting customers, viewers, fans and of changing people’s entrenched perspectives – of creating something truly great. This applies equally across physical products to works of music and art.

Every artist has their “wow” period, and it’s usually early on, just as products have their hay day (“back when they used to care…”). Suffice to say there are as many examples in the world of art and academics as there are in the world of products. You even might say that in certain cases they are connected. As the novelty of piece of art or certain approach hits the mainstream, becomes a part of the fabric of popular culture it quickly becomes productized. More and more quickly in fact as the window closes in a blink on “cool”, capitalizing on it rapidly is the name of the game. This isn’t always a bad thing, and in fact many brands that truly understand themselves and their value don’t always commit commercial hari-kari when they productize, franchise and generally balloon out to the mass market. Virgin Airlines is a good example of this. TED Talks is a bad example.

Unfortunately most brands follow this – “had it for a while, saw the opportunity to make a buck, let quality slip, killed the brand.”

I was struck by this this past weekend as I set down with my wife and 2 year old son for bout of bedtime story reading. I picked up one of the newer acquisitions on the shelf. It was Cat in The Hat’s Safari So Good: All About African Wildlife. By the second page of miserably desperate rhymes, careless art work and those tell-tale stuck-on-cells of the Cat in the Hat, my wife and I looked at each other in silent disgust. This wasn’t the work of the late, great Dr. Seuss. Our bad since all we had to do was look at the front cover and the author Bonnie Worth to know. Further investigation revealed that it was a 2011 rendering by something called Dr. Seuss Enterprises LTD. The same people who make that hideous cartoon rendition on TV with the vaguely creepy Noel Coward sound-alike Cat in the Hat.

I am not suggesting that the franchising of a cultural institution is wrong. There’s every reason to continue along on a formula that works. What doesn’t work is letting hacks cheapen the experience and bring down the brand. As we all know, it takes much much more time to build a brand up than tear it down, and yet somehow we let it happen, like sitting idly by while a loved one dies of a cold. There’s no reason for it.

Examples abound, and I put them in four categories. 1) Great brands that killed themselves, never to be revived 2) Great brands that nearly killed themselves but turned things around at the hands visionary management 3) Brands that nearly killed themselves but were saved by fans or good business people 4) Brands that have always known their value and would never dream of sullying it.

From Fender Guitars and Indian Motorcycles who were brought back from the brink after years of mismanagement to companies like Saab who were allowed to die at the hands of careless buyers, to companies like Martin Guitars, BMW and Omega who have never let their brand guards down.

To bring it full circle, I was most pleased recently to discover an entirely different category of brand resuscitation with the Shinola company, once a popular purveyor of shoe polish often contrasted with shit, to be transformed at the hands of marketing-savvy folks in Detroit who have turned the Marque from shoeshine to watches and a whole lot more.

For a marketer this is perhaps the most exciting prospect, and makes me think it’s about time to start a short list of long lost but not forgotten brands primed for a spit, polish and relaunch.

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