This article is by Jonah Disend, founder and CEO of Redscout.
When I started in advertising as a brand strategist, we used to use this expression: “Your strategy is showing.” This statement was akin to being too obvious and blatantly showing the consumer what your intentions were – often alienating him or her in the process (you might remember this happening recently with Bic for Her pens).
Fast-forward 20 years, and I am seeing a very similar phenomenon among many companies whose desire for growth and scale above all else is finding its way to the consumer in ways that they weren’t intending.
Here are three common signs that your scale is showing and what you can do about it:
1. Brand Amnesia
It’s surprising how often executives, especially at large companies, don’t know what their brand stands for. The irony is that almost every big brand, at some point, stood for something interesting and meaningful to consumers. They were born out of a mission that spoke to something that consumers deeply cared about. However, as successful companies grow and scale, they have a tendency to focus on solving operational problems with such narrow intensity that they lose sight of the impact these decisions have on their consumers and brand. Things that are done in the name of efficiency and scale end up bleaching the brand of its unique personality and colorfulness and, over time, people forget what made the brand interesting in the first place.
A classic case of Brand Amnesia happened to Starbucks. After astronomical growth in its early years, it started to struggle and, in 2007, its stock dropped 42% and a year later Howard Schultz, its founder, was brought back as CEO. When Schultz returned, he saw that the brand had lost its way and was starting to feel like a sterile, fast-food chain. To help bring back the soul of the brand, Schultz embraced Starbuck’s original purpose – bringing an authentic coffeehouse experience to people. “I deeply wanted people to fall back in love with Starbucks and recapture the essence of what we set out to do: inspire the human spirit, ” said Schultz. By the end of 2011, the stock was up more than five times from its 10-year low in 2008.
THE FIX: Remember what people loved about your brand in the first place.
Your brand’s heritage and original mission is a great source of inspiration. By looking for ways to apply your brand’s founding mission in the current marketplace, you may find an opportunity to rally around a brand purpose that’s about more than just scaling the business.
2. Innovation Lust
Everybody loves innovation. And when done well, it has the potential to transform a business. However, too often we see executives fall in love with innovation for innovation’s sake. They pour massive resources into product development, generate tons of ideas, and start going SKU-crazy – developing new flavors, new sizes, new product categories, and so on. Pretty soon, they find that they have overextended their resources, the quality of their core offering deteriorates, brand perception suffers, and eventually their consumers stop buying.
However, the problem isn’t innovation. The problem is innovating without discipline. As CEO at Ford Motor Company, Alan Mulally’s decisions around innovation are instructive. Many have attributed his focused approach to innovation and his decision to reduce Ford’s global vehicle platforms from more than 40 to fewer than 15 as a key driver of the company’s successful turnaround from 2007-2012.
THE FIX: Use innovation to build your core, not dilute it.
Even when you are growing new revenue streams, it’s important that innovation supports your core – in brand equity and sales results. Innovation that dilutes hard-won brand equity and revenue streams is risky, so set clear guardrails that protect your brand and don’t alienate your current consumer.
3. Apple Envy
Executives, like the rest of us, are social animals. As such, they are prone to looking to their peers for lessons on how to grow a business. For example, it’s common to look at best practices and try to replicate them in your organization. The problem with this approach is that best practices are oversimplified and they don’t take into account the uniqueness of your business, brand, and consumer. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve heard executives say that they want to be like Apple, or some other successful brand, even when “being Apple” doesn’t make sense in their category of business.
JC Penney took the idea of “being Apple” literally and actually went out and hired former Apple retail exec, Ron Johnson, as its CEO in 2011. By most accounts, the results were disastrous. There are many theories as to why this happened, but many believe that by applying strategies and tactics that worked at Apple, like not testing changes to store layouts and replacing coupon promotions with everyday low prices, Johnson didn’t give enough weight to what made JC Penney different from Apple.
THE FIX: Don’t underestimate the uniqueness of your situation.
Learning from others is fine, but it doesn’t mean you should copy them. Beware of best practices – they are inherently un-innovative because they reflect what everyone else is already doing. Have the courage to develop strategies and ideas that are uniquely yours.