It is sobering to read in the space of a few weeks that Kodak is on the verge of declaring bankruptcy and that Sears will be shutting over a hundred stores. These are brands with which baby boomers grew up. They stood for values many held dear -- "preserving memories" in the case of Kodak and "value for the entire family" in the case of Sears.
The names, of course, are not completely dead. In fact, I still have more contact with them than I do with some other brands. My daughter-in-law continually sends me "Kodak Galleries" of my grandchildren. And, I have a niece who works in a Sears. Although, I suppose it is telling that I didn't mention purchasing Kodak products or shopping at a Sears.
The easy answer, and the one you have all heard, is that both of these brands could not adapt to changing competition. Like the proverbial supertanker, they were difficult to change quickly and sharply. The transition from film-based to digital photography may have been inevitable, but Kodak played a role in the development of the digital camera.
So how do marketers keep their brands healthy? How do they assure they do not find themselves on the wrong side of changes in the marketplace?
- A brand is the glue that binds a consumer to a product. It is the basis of loyalty and identity. And, it tells the consumer what a product is not, who does not belong to its family, as much as it defines what the product is. That "what it's not" extends beyond its immediate competition. McDonald's kept its brand healthy by recognizing it is was more than simply "not Burger King." It was "not a sit-down restaurant." And, that meant it competed with Starbucks for snack occasions. What is Burger King "not"?
- The wrong answer to the question of what a brand is "not" is "trying to be all things to all people." It may work for a while, but, as Sears has learned, a weak focus can make you vulnerable. When Sears truly dominated a large swath of mass retailing, all was well. But, over time, more focused competitors -- some big, some small, some physical, some catalogues -- chipped away at the margins. In the end, there are a number of players doing a better job of being pieces of "not Sears."
So, the successful marketer must keep a careful eye on what is outside of the brand's preserve, far outside. One way is to keep monitoring social media. The tendency is to pay attention to what is being said about "my brand." But, the real goal has to be paying attention to what my brand's users are saying about all of their consumption. What products, services, activities are poaching on the emotional ties that used to be exclusively the domain of my brand? More to the point, what is replacing those emotional ties?
Another more focused approach to this monitoring is with online communities of your brand loyalists. This effort still can have a very broad outlook, but it also allows for probing into specific behavior and attitudes. I suspect it was not simply the birth of digital photography that changed the world for Kodak. It was also the different vision of friendship and relationships that Gen-Xers display, a vision that set great store in broad but immediate sharing of experiences. Online communities are great places for exploring these changing social constructs.