Is your brand a zombie?

As published in Brand Quarterly on July 6, 2015. Are you familiar with the popular television series The Walking Dead? The sheriff’s deputy, Rick Grimes, awakens from a coma in an apocalyptic world dominated by flesh-eating zombies. Knowing that the majority of people worldwide would not care if 73% of brands disappeared tomorrow, we should seriously ask ourselves whether brands have not turned into zombies as well. They are still walking, thinking they are alive, yet finding themselves in a decaying state with their vital signs at an all-time low.
The risk of brands turning into zombies is very real. Brands have a myriad of challenges to deal with nowadays, none of which is easy to tackle. They have a hard time standing out from the crowd; when the effects of brand usage and prototypically are factored out, brands hardly show any exclusive image attributes. Brands can make increasingly less use of functional claims: organizations such as the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) are narrowing the mind spaces that can be claimed.
Brands are playing a zero sum game: most of them compete in flat-lining categories, with private label sales expected to soon exceed branded product sales in Europe and other maturing markets like the US and Canada (Planet Retail). Brands are under increasing time pressure: the expiration date of brand creativity is getting shorter, with ideas being copied better and more rapidly. Brands can no longer rely on the classic Pareto rule: in any given category, 20% of customers currently represent maximally 50% of revenues. And brands struggle to connect with younger, more empowered consumer generations: what marketers consider to be important for the marketing-savvy millennials is not always thought of as such by the latter.

Brands are too egocentric

Brands could long rely on their old and proven tricks to stay alive and healthy: throw in another brand campaign that maximizes GRPs, come up with new product innovations, extend the brand’s product range or jump on the promotion bandwagon. However, the effectiveness of these tried and tested solutions is in sharp decline. The fundamental problem related to each of them is that they typically take a brand-centric perspective, not a consumer-centric one.
By doing so, brands suffer from many kinds of biases: an illusion of knowledge bias, thinking they know more about the consumer than they actually do; a false consensus bias, starting from their own perspective of the world; an observational selection bias, making brands find new evidence to support their own beliefs; an agnosticism bias, with brands not knowing what they do not know and focusing too much on things they already know.

Fewer solutions, more problems

Albert Einstein once said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions”. If brands wish to remain relevant in the future, they would benefit from spending less time coming up with new brand solutions and more time understanding consumer problems and deriving relevant consumer insights from them. There are ample examples of what happens when brands do not take this philosophy at heart.

  • Kodak filed for bankruptcy early 2012, having largely underestimated the huge market potential of digital photography, despite the fact that one of their engineers invented the digital camera in 1975 long before the digital age.
  • Kellogg’s learned it the hard way when trying to introduce breakfast cereals into the Indian market. Failing to recognize that the Indian breakfast has vegetables and rice on the menu and that storing fresh milk is not a common thing in India, it took them far more time and money to be successful in the Indian market than originally anticipated.
  • And LEGO suffered from a 10-year period of declining performance because it lost its connection with its customers. After CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp took over in 2004, the company decided to put the child at the heart of everything they do. The results are impressive: LEGO tripled its revenues since 2007 and has become the most powerful brand in the world according to the Brand Finance Global 500.

From listening to collaborating

With nearly 3 billion brand conversations taking place around the world every day, consumers have become a highly powerful global marketing machine themselves, either boosting or working against the effects of traditional brand advertising. But consumers do more than just talk and share. A recent study in the UK highlighted that consumers now spend more time and money on innovation than all consumer product firms combined (M.I.T. Sloan School of Management), with initiatives such as Kickstarter increasingly gaining momentum.
The persons formerly known as consumers have turned into contributors and volunteers, composing a world full of problem solvers who are creating billions of dollars’ worth in value without even being paid for it. This holds even more so for younger consumer populations. Whereas the mental mindset of baby boomers was “These are the rules”, Generation X lives by “I don’t follow the rules”, Generation Y uses “These are my rules” and Generation Z says “Let’s co-create our rules”. Clever organizations lift upon customers’ desire, enthusiasm and ability to collaborate with brands and create the necessary conditions for co-design, co-creation and co-ownership.

A long way to go

In order to get there, brands still need to take a few hurdles. The first one deals with bridging the collaboration divide. Despite the fact that 4 out of 5 consumers are knocking on big companies’ doors to share ideas with them  (Consumer Collaboration study; InSites Consulting), only a minority of companies invites them in. The second hurdle is acknowledging the difference between enabling consumers to collaborate with brands and motivating them to do so.
Companies are relatively good at the former, but terrible at the latter. Turning consumers into collaborators means offering them autonomy (‘I am free to do or not do this’), lifting on competence (‘I am good at this’), creating relatedness (‘People like me do this’) and rewarding value (‘What I do is important’). The final hurdle is to demonstrate true business impact of consumer collaboration, with only fragmented evidence accumulated so far.
Forget branding and positioning. Once you understand customer behavior, everything else falls into place”, T.G. Stemberg highlighted. Only by getting really close to consumers and by joining forces with them, brands can stay vibrant, living to the heartbeat of consumer insights. Start embracing consumer collaboration and offer your brand the best protection against turning into a zombie.

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