How do you solve a problem like... reversing brand decline?

How should agencies approach a brand renovation gig?

Each week, we ask agency experts from across the world and the ad business for their take on a tough question facing the industry, from topical concerns to perennial pain points.

As part of our Deep Dive series on fast-growth brands, The Drum’s Hannah Bowler dissected the new brand strategy of furniture website Made.com. Jude Whyte, director of brand creative at Made.com, told us her mission is to bring back the “standout energy” it possessed previously in order to see off rivals.

“We have to prove to our customers again that we have more extraordinary things to show them,” she said. “Everyone has become an interior designer now and feels relatively confident in their choices. Made needs to inject more unexpected ideas.”

Helping a brand refresh or reset its image after a period of establishment, or even stagnation, is a classic problem marketers and agencies try to crack every day. But before the operation can begin, there needs to be a full examination of a brand. So, we asked our expert readers how they approach that problem.

How do you solve a problem like... reversing brand decline?

Ben Essen, chief strategy officer, Iris Global

I saw this quote on the ’gram: ‘When you trip in life, make it part of your dance.’ We give the same advice to brands in decline: you need to own it. Recognize what isn’t working for today’s consumer and proactively and visibly take on the job of fixing it. Too many brands these days attempt ‘turnarounds by stealth’, hire a management consultancy, change data platform and incrementally try to increase relevance again before anyone notices they were gone. But people aren’t fooled. They know what’s going on and would much prefer to see a brand be bold and honest. Think Domino’s ‘Pizza Turnaround’. Visibly shed the things that aren’t working, remind people what they once loved about you and build an exciting turnaround that customers old and new want to get involved in.

Will Lion and Simon Gregory, joint chief strategy officers, BBH London

Go back to what made it great in the first place. Not in a retro way, but in a radical, roots type way. Because what’s probably happened is your failing brand has drifted from this, or the world moved on. In 2014, Audi’s brand desire was tanking and Tesco had the biggest corporate loss and the lowest trust scores in history. We returned to ’progressive technology’ and ’helpfulness’ as the roots of these brands and updated their positionings for the times. The fact they did OK at the IPA Effectiveness Awards suggests that worked. So before you look forward, look back.

Kathryn Jubrail, managing director, Mother Design

When figuring out how to make a brand relevant again, you need to look at where the category, consumers and culture are going, but also where the brand started. The best rebrands are a careful balance of making something feel relevant and moving it on without losing that brand’s integrity – who it is, what people associate with it and its enduring truth.

Burger King is a brilliant example of this. Its original logo was the starting point of inspiration and the brand was made to feel new with an updated illustration and photography style. It captures the confidence of who it is today, while remaining true to what people love about it.

Sophie Lewis, chief strategy officer, M&C Saatchi

I use the brand first. What is the rest of the customer experience like? What need was the brand serving originally?

What else is happening in the category, what’s happening in society that has contributed to stagnancy?

Is there anything societal that is positively or negatively impacting growth? Like a global pandemic and people being at home for two years.

Should this strategy be about the brand (the stuff the brand wants to say) or about the audience and their lives and needs?

I think it’s pretty basic. If Made took all of the above into consideration, then where it has landed will be close to the answer.

Sam Williams, joint head of strategy, AMV BBDO

As a strategist, diagnosing a brand’s declining growth is the perfect opportunity to channel our best Sherlock Holmes fantasy.

The temptation is to dive straight into the data, but before that I always find it best to talk to real people – what are they saying on the street or in the depths of a Reddit thread? What are the staff on the shop floor saying? These conversations quickly reveal clues that can help bring the data to life – hypotheses we can look to interrogate in the oodles of data available.

Also, like any good detective story, the answer is often hidden in the victim’s past. By definition, a brand in decline was successful at some point and this change in fortunes can be traced back to a lack of focus on what made it great in the past – whether that be product, positioning or marketing mix. The trick then is to refresh these attributes to bring them up to date.

Jacob Lovewell, senior experience strategist, Rapp

If you’ve got a declining brand on your hands then it’s very easy to panic and possibly press the ejector seat button. But if you can force yourself to hit refresh rather than reset, you’ve got an opportunity to get back to who you really are. Use this as a chance to be the brand you started out to be: but it doesn’t count for squat unless every touchpoint and experience matches. Made’s push to be more playful is all fun and games, but unless it comes alive in every interaction (both physical and digital) it could fall flat.

Michela Graci, strategy partner, Coley Porter Bell

It’s so important for brands to react and recalibrate themselves to address specific challenges that spawn from competitive pressure and shifting consumer landscapes. Complacency is brands’ worst enemy, so being proactive and self-critical is the holy grail. With this in mind, we created a diagnostic framework – which we call Immersive Branding model – that looks at seven critical dimensions all brands should deliver on to stay relevant in culture. We use this to assess how brands perform in context, highlight potential gaps and put clear actions in place not only to address decline but, most importantly, to ensure sustained growth.

Chris Turney, head of strategy, Joan Creative

Brands growing the fastest have an outsized share of culture. The challenge is that brands tend to overestimate their importance in consumers’ lives and underestimate their impact with audiences. Declining brands need to reframe the two words: audience is a more powerful tool for transformation than some amalgamated 2.3-box-buying razor consumer. Declining brands need to fall back in love with their audience – knowing it means they spend their lives not thinking about your razor. It means rejecting the median as a creative device and designing instead for the exceptional outliers, taking an artist’s approach and entertaining the hell out of them.

Jasmine Dadlani, chief strategy officer, McKinney

As a strategist, these are the juiciest assignments. Of course we start with ’why the decline?’ But often there’s no clear answer. So then I turn to the people who still love the brand, because every brand has hidden fans somewhere. Are there more people with a similar mindset who we could convert? Do fans use the brand in a fresh way that hasn’t yet been spotlighted? Does the brand have something in its DNA that can serve as the basis of a pivot, or complete overhaul? One of these paths is sure to point the way on a turnaround.

Rosalind Bull, associate strategy director, Wolff Olins

Every brand has great roots, it’s about uncovering them so that they can once again be strong foundations. The formula is surprisingly simple. Crystallize what’s special about the brand; the unlock could be the unique origin story, spirit or business model. Then, define what the world needs and explore how your brand is uniquely positioned to solve for the needs of today and tomorrow. The overlap is the springboard for your brand’s comeback. The answer, however transformational, should never feel like it came out of thin air. It should simply tell the exciting next chapter of your story.

Nick Barthram, founder and strategy partner, Firehaus

The Made.com journey reiterates a situation we often see: a startup brand launches with a unique proposition, grows using direct digital media, then, a few years later, it starts to plateau and pump more money into what’s worked before. But it doesn’t work any more.

Young, high-growth businesses succeed through a unique proposition. A few years later, their proposition is less unique and they often struggle to see themselves in the context of a wider category. Most brands then look inwardly – we say: look out. Get under the skin of your category and your category buyers. Position yourself distinctively against the category entry points and competitors. It’s about them now, not you.

Christian Perrins, head of strategy, Waste Creative

Working in the entertainment and gaming space, we often help ’as-a-service’ brands stay salient to drive lifetime value. Our first guiding principle is that these brands are never finished. They’re shape shifters that evolve and mutate in line with the needs of their fandoms. The second principle is the Ikea effect, whereby innovations and experiments are built with fans, not marketed at them – driving attachment. Sometimes literally (via user-generated content), sometimes via explicit acknowledgement and incorporation of their needs and ideas. If brands accept a culture of dynamism and co-creation, they stand a better chance of avoiding serious decline.

Keith Noble, director, Forepoint

What’s often needed is a change in mindset – especially with B2B brands. The corporate world has changed forever. ‘Business as usual’ is no longer an option. And the only certainty is uncertainty. B2B brands need to behave more like their B2C counterparts – treating employees and customers as human beings, as real people. That means knocking off the corporate edges, losing the functional and factual ‘comfort zone’. And stepping into a brave new world of communicating and connecting on a much more emotional level. Customers and employees alike need to buy into you, not just buy from you.

Viv Bhatia, creative director and partner, Ico Design

Brands stagnate or become ’unfashionable’ for many reasons. However, before embarking on an expensive brand refresh, tough underlying questions need to be addressed. Why is brand perception at a low? Is it confused marketing activity? Better competition? Poor customer experience? Once these fundamentals are out in the open, ideas and decisions about new ways forward can become a strategic catalyst for change.

We tackle this by gaining a deeper understanding of the brand’s internal and external issues, getting to the nub of what are often disparate motivations and consumer desires. A brand refresh can often be the answer, but only if you’re asking the right questions first.

Want to join future debates? Email me at sam.bradley@thedrum.com.