Do You Really Want To Build A Famous Brand?

In a world where popularity is the ‘it’ metric for so many marketers, have you really thought through how your brand would cope if all your wishes came true? If your brand strategy is based on building your popularity, here’s some things you might like to consider as you rush to be noticed.

For many brands struggling to get a foothold or grow presence in cut-throat markets, the thought of being a household name is little more than the dream that keeps them going on those days when the going is tough. But popularity is not a panacea – instead it replaces one set of challenges with another that can be just as challenging, if not more so. What you must then handle, and how, comes down to how and why you became a famous brand in the first place. Today there is more than one version of success.

Famous By Design

These are the brands that are most likely to cope well with a spike in their awareness and popularity because, from the outset, they designed and fashioned their brand to expand to this size. Flexibility, scalability and responsiveness were hard-wired into their plans from the outset. The optimum plan here is to have a brand that is profitable at each stage of scale – start up, local, national, regional, global – but one where the dynamics and structures of the business, the brand and the story stretch to adjust to new demands.

The temptation of course is to build a brand that will “reach profitability”. Nothing wrong with that, providing you have a patient investor group. But my preference is always to find ways to embed healthy margins from the start and to turn growth into a reward for consumers – so that the bigger the company becomes, the stronger its name becomes and the more it operates at scale, the more ways that consumers can bring the brand into their lives and the greater the bottom-line returns. The key consideration: how do you reward those consumers who’ve been with you since the start while welcoming new customers to the brand that is increasingly on everyone’s mind?

Brands that work this way understand from the start that the price of fame can reach a point where it is too high: where they must make a decision between growing profile and top line or staying a certain size and leveraging supply/demand dynamics to maintain profitability. It’s an issue that Subaru is grappling with right now.

Now Famous

It’s easy to mistake popularity for fame in today’s market: to believe you are on top of the world when in fact you are top of mind for the moment, but that moment will soon be gone. Fashion does wonders for the ego. You’re in demand. Your social media metrics are off the charts. The world wants more of you than you can possibly give. The internet orders are jammed. But attention also brings huge demands and massive risks. You must scale to meet that clamor and doing so requires significant upfront investment. At the same time, the media attention that probably worked to get you where you are can then put you under enormous scrutiny.

As Tommy Hilfiger and others have discovered to their cost, you can find huge favor with a worldwide audience, like the hip-hop community, only for that community to move on, leaving you to rebuild your now over-stretched brand. The other risk is that, in gearing up to meet the new demand, you can become overly-familiar, diluting your brand worth and seeing your same-store sales fall as consumers find that either you are now just too much of a good thing or something else has taken their eye.

I think this is one of the hardest calls for a brand to make – knowing whether they have truly arrived or whether they are blipping. My advice for brands struggling to gauge their true popularity is to look carefully at what’s driving the growth. If your fame is media-fueled, then your popularity is likely to be more ephemeral than if you are meeting a market-based need or if macro-demand is increasing substantially. Look carefully at the growth characteristics of the market to help determine what’s happening, why and who’s behind the change. If that change is relatively sudden, what’s suddenly brought it to the world’s attention, and what’s to prevent it disappearing just as quickly? The ideal trend shape – a spike, followed by a long tail decline. That will bring you strong sales in the short-medium term, and sustained sales over the next while as you develop and deliver whatever’s next.

Once Famous

The hardest thing for any brand to admit, especially one that has been at the top of the game, is that its glory days are over and that it is in decline. The fight-back to prominence starts with re-defining not what used to make you famous but rather how the essence of what you represented can be reconfigured and re-presented in order for consumers to see a powerful new sense of relevance in what you stand for. Given that, according to Jim Collins, over 80% of brands will fade from view having reached the top, the question for most famous brands is not if, but when, they will need to find the energy and the focus to re-establish leadership. Playboy is struggling with this right now in my view.

The critical metric here is currency; knowing which elements of your story to bring through, and which ones to shed, which to add to and which to re-interpret, in order for consumers to find a way of relating to you that they find valuable and exciting. Brands like Chanel and Burberry for example have used their history to powerful effect. But sadly too many brands in this predicament seek to trade on their past in the hope that what they were is too valuable to let go, that they will be rediscovered intact or that they have done enough already to warrant a path forward. Over time, they learn that legacy does not always mean equity.

The Right Balance

Pop culture perpetuates the myth of effortless and glamorous success, but no brand is famous in the sense that it doesn’t have to do things to stay at the top of its game. The workload of a famous brand will not abate because, ironically, recognition will ensure that people continue to want more.

The hardest equation to get right in marketing is not building demand (although that’s difficult enough) it’s being able to balance your brand’s profile, profitability and capacity. Make enough product, and mean enough, for your customers to always want more and to pay for it. Too little and you are hard to spot; too much and there’s a real risk you’ll be taken for granted or disappear over the horizon.

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