Marketing Idea No. 297: To Reposition or not to Reposition – The Quest for Fountain of Youth

He is the king of the shallow male ego, the ultimate in male fantasy with fast cars, fast gizmos and fast women. But when you add a multi-million dollar movie, book and merchandizing franchise to it – suddenly we just have to go quiet and admire him. And he built his empire, not by doing different attractive things everytime he hits the silver screen, but by doing the same thing over and over and over. It was consistency that built his brand, like many other brands in the world from Lux to Lenovo. The name is Bond. James Bond.

Mr. Bond is not only one of the biggest icons of our world but also an amazingly consistent brand. Every bond movie starts with a song in a husky female voice where the name of the film is embedded into the song. The film starts with Bond walking toward his right, then all of a sudden turning left, taking aim at the camera and shooting, then blood covers the camera. Then there is the signature tune, the gadgets, the larger than life villain who always wants to take over the world, the voluptuous and often mindless bond girls, the catchphrases, the drink which is always shaken not stirred – all of these mean a lot of things to a lot of people. But to marketers, this symbolizes consistency. Its the kind of consistency through rituals and re-enforcements that builds super brands.

Thats why when James Bond wanted to redefine himself, there was a huge controversy. The hard core fans who followed the brand loyally for decades were aghast. This is not James Bond! Where are the gadgets? But with changing times, James Bond did change to appeal to a younger demographic. I guess he had to. Cold war is no longer relevant. The new villains of the world are terrorists who want to blow things up. Spies are no longer suave and charismatic, but gritty and physically well built like Daniel Craig. Bond girls are no longer ornaments. They have an identity and they fight the good fight side by side with their guy. And then of course competition was looming. Jason Bourne suddenly looked a lot cooler and realistic than the often over-the-top James Bond. So Bond changed.

James Bond changed and did it smartly. It kept its soul intact but re-defined itself for the new age. So not only he held on to most of its old fans, but created a new sets of fan. And thats the whole idea of this rebranding/redefining saga. Brands should not wait till their appeal started to look old to change. They should change, while they are still on top of their game but when they started to feel a turnaround just up ahead in the road.

Jack Welch once said

“If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, then the end is near”.

So change definitely is good and necessary.

There is simply a lot of change that’s happening out there. A lot of it is justified and if anything, necessary. A few even makes sense. But a lot of these changes are just mindless herd mentality. There is an old joke, which says “When you have nothing to say about your brand, change the slogan”. Therefore a lot of brands who are trying to reposition/rebrand themselves to look youthful, are doing so simply because that’s seems more logical. Such assumptions are always prone to be disastrous.

There is also a tendency to change things not because there is a business need, but internal stakeholders believe it’s a good rule of thumb to refresh things. There is also a perception that change means going 360 degree opposite. Change doesn’t mean the end of something completely and beginning of something new. Despite all the hoopla around it, is on-line the end of off-line? When we see legendary book stores like “Borders” closing and virtual stores like “Amazon” soaring to new heights, people can make this false assumption.

Just like Internet was never the end of Television as a medium, online is not the end of off-line. In fact, the future is a sort of hybrid, a mutually beneficial and dependent co-existence at times. In that future, online firms will complement their online existence through off-line activities. And of course, brick and mortar firms will go virtual to open up a new source of targeting customers.

A classic example would be how E-Bay is using off-site pop up stores/acts to drive traffic to its website.

An interesting phenomenon about online firms is the difficulty in categorizing them. A few years ago Amazon was an online book store, Apple was a computer maker, and Google was a search Engine. But Amazon is now into tablet manufacturing and content providing. Apple if at the forefront of defining digital revolution through i tunes, i pod, i phone and i pad. And Google is an omnipresent force in handsets, cloud computing, music store and software development.

This tells us that the classic way of defining boundaries for businesses no longer apply. Even more importantly, you cant really categorize who is your competition and who is not in a black and white manner anymore

Change also means trying to do the same things….but in a slightly different way.

Its no secret that merchandising sales is big business, from sports club to video games to Hollywood. The tried and tested merchandising game worked in a different way before. You make a fantastic animated film, develop a like-able character, market it till you drop and with soaring popularity go for merchandising to bring in the big money. The Buzz Lightyear is a great example of that. So the entire line extension and licensing game started with movies and ended with merchandising, tv show, games etc.

But the process that Pixar and then Disney crafted to perfection has reached a snag. The problem with this is the risk associated with it. It takes millions of dollars to make and market a movie with no guarantee that it will succeed. On the other hand it takes a few thousand dollars to create a fantastic mobile game/app with a like-able character. So its a better bet to create a mobile game based character, make to so addictive and popular that it creates a huge fan base and then make a movie which will be sure sell among the fan base and beyond. This is a better way of going. And the trend is catching on. Rovio, with its extremely popular Angry Birds game is following this reverse trend. The new game from Disney (Where’s my Water?) starring a love-able googly eye aligator called “Swampy” is already creating a huge fan base. The next logical step would be TV shows and movie. So the creator of the trend itself (Disney) has reversing the trend.

A new game of Activision (the gaming giant), called “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3″ set a record of earning $750 million in its first five days of launch; making it the most successful launch of an entertainment product ever. Its unthinkable for some that the biggest money-making launch ever in entertainment industry is not a movie or a book; but a video game! Comparing it to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (which is one of the record breaking and most successful movie launch of all time); the Harry Potter film earned only $169 million in its first weekend. Compare $750 million vs $169 million – and you can see who is clearly winning the war.

In the past two decades video gaming industry has off-loaded its small industry status and emerged as a $56 billion dollar industry. It has crossed newspaper, magazine and music in order to become the second biggest entertainment business; behind only movie. Now the movie numbers are inflated because it includes the DVD sales; which is driving the growth in film business. But even then, in a very short time video game industry has become three-fifth in size to the film industry and quickly closing that gap.

A lot has changed in gaming industry and the biggest strength of gaming industry is that unlike the other industries (Newspaper, music etc.) gaming industry embraced those changes and actually thrived on them. Going back, two launches probably shaped the industry future more than anything. One is the launch of Sony PlayStation back in 1994 which made video gaming an extremely adult affair and no longer a matter of kids and nerds. The second would be the launch of Nintendo Wii which made video gaming popular among women also. Amazingly, the average age of gamers is now over 35 and a significant percentage of them are women (to some extent biased number due to mobile games like Angry Birds which is very popular among women). With these two mega events behind, the majority of growth in video gaming is coming either from online games like Farmville and World of Warcraft. Or they are coming from mobile games like Angry Birds, made by a Finnish company called Rovio who houses only 55 employees. In a way, online and mobile is the future of gaming. Although gaming industry is still earning most of its money from selling console based games, the growth in future is coming from online and mobile.

The lesson to learn for modern marketer: Staying one step ahead of consumer trends, cooking up awesome innovations, adjusting to the rapid pace of technology and preference and ensuring cool execution putting consumer at the center of everything.

There is a cycle at work here.

  1. Brands start out by targeting a core group of customers
  2. As the brand increases in awareness and popularity, it starts to appeal to mass consumers outside its core group of consumers
  3. As the time goes by and the brand proposition looks increasingly generic and old fashioned, the brand upgrades its look & feel and try make itself look younger and cooler.
  4. As competition intensifies in their category, the brand understands that the only way to guarantee future growth is if they target young users.

Catch’em young and they will serve you for decades – that has been the mantra that brands live by. From Nescafe to Gap to Telenor – all brands upgraded their look & feel to make them more appealing to the 16-24 target segment. Disney just took the game even further. To prepare a new market for their products in an increasingly alien market like China, Disney has opened an English language teaching school in China which teaches Chinese babies how to speak English by using cool Disney items (Mickey Mouse etc.) as props. To them, that’s how you create a new market that future-proofs your business.

But there are three interesting reverse trends and opportunities thats coming out of it. Marketers need to be careful of this youthful makeover trend as it works as a trap as well.

  1. As all brands are upgrading their look and repositioning themselves for youth, the brands that remain consistent without going through changes might all of a sudden become very successful. In an increasingly uncertain and changing world, the brand that remains true to its core proposition, look and feel – can become the anchor of stability that consumers may end up liking. Amul can be a great example as the core look and feel of the brand stayed the same for a better part of 25 years.
  2. As all brands appeal to youth, the ones that are targeting other segments (i.e. Corporate, Senior Citizens) might profit by focusing in a relatively uncluttered field. Harley Davidson is increasing their business by steadily focusing on the increasingly older Harley users. While the whole telecom market was looking at youth, Blackberry slowly created the smart phone platform by focusing on executives.
  3. As all brands try to attract youth by making their look and feel cooler; all brands may start to look pretty much the same; like all youth whose starting to look more or less the same with their messy hair-do, low cut jeans and converse snickers

We have been warned before in the management books – change is the only constant. So are we really caught off guard when the whole world all of a sudden started changing in the name of rebranding?

Maybe we are, because change is difficult to accept – no matter at what stage and situation of life we are. It has been even more difficult for pundits all over the world to understand, accept and get on board this rebranding bandwagon. Well they do have a case. Wasnt it the mantra of all branding to stay true to your positioning and deliver your brand message consistently through all touch point for a long period of time to build brand equity?

So the big question comes – in a game of change vs no change, position vs reposition – which one is the right way to go?

Like all things in life there is no simple and one-fits-all answer to that mind bending question. For brands like Anderson Consulting, rebranding into Accenture was the only way to survive. For International Business Machine to become IBM and then become a computer service provider is the only way to keep their business alive. For Airtel, changing their logo was the only way to show them as a modern, international brand rather than a local Indian brand.

So change is needed. Rebranding is a tool that we need to use, sparingly and carefully. But in the midst of all this changes, staying true your positioning may be even more important than ever. Does it make sense? Isnt that a bit contradictory?

I guess Madonna did it the best possible way. Throughout 80s, 90s and 21st century Madonna continued to reinvent and reposition herself from a symbol of raw sexuality to pop icon to fashion diva to spiritual maturity to controversy magnet. But through this entire journey Madonna didnt lose her soul which stayed consistent – which is the soul of a person who prefers to do things her way no matter what. That was her brand positioning. And through all the costume, cosmetic and genre changes; that positioning still holds true.

So there are three lessons to learn. We can learn that consistency, not swift changes, build great brands. We can learn that when everyone wants to be youthful, everyone looks strikingly similar which is a criminal act in the world of branding. But we can also learn that spotting when change is necessary and then acting on it is what keeps great brands great for a long period of time.

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