The Brand Credibility Paradox

05.07.13 / David Lemley

Is over emphasis on your hard-core credibility limiting your brand’s influence and growth?

I’ve seen it a lot. Brands achieving the level of success they desire by focusing on one thing for a hard-core, loyal following. They excel at specialty-store and are beloved by extreme activity junkies whether they climb, hike, run, swim, tri, skate or board.  Then they get stuck by the following question:

How do we grow our brand and not destroy our industry cred?

Our friends at Sugoi are a great example. They create technically advanced gear, enjoy a great cycling heritage, and are proudly worn by hard-core cyclists. So what is the problem?

Research shows time and time again that there are people who spend upwards of $5,000 on a bicycle and another $1,500 on apparel and gear to compete at a near Olympic level. But only a few. And a few more commute on bikes. Most people are what Sugoi calls Starbucks Riders. Someone who spends a ton of money to dress the part, then simply rides down to the local Starbucks to look extreme while enjoying their carmel Frappucino.

This challenge isn’t limited to cycling. I saw the same problem with REI too. Anytime a group of individuals who are passionate about a specific set of activities infiltrate and then stay inside an organization, their marketing and advertising focuses on the most extreme expression and conditions their gear can endure.

This continual emphasis on the extreme hard-core adventurer not only limits who can belong to and then contribute to your cult brand – it ultimately dulls the senses of everyone in the organization and stifles product development, marketing, and recruitment. According to Outdoor Retailer 2013, most people sporting Patagonia and NorthFace use the gear to drive 5 miles and scale Mount Ben & Jerry’s in the freezer case of their local grocery.

I have seen this is the wellness category too. Brands with street cred for pioneering the natural, wellness and organics movement, who focused every aspect of communication, recruitment and product development on making certain that their original Hippier-than-thou positioning was preached above all else. While they wrestled with their significance, Target and Walmart offered similar, more approachable products for today’s Yoga Mom and her 28 year-old, Chia swilling, tea-guzzling counter-part. Both of these consumer profiles now get their health & wellness needs met without having to give up their love of high heels, designer jeans, enjoying a cocktail or wolfing down the occasional box of mac ’n cheese.

The fundamentals of Cult Branding have the power to make humans respond viscerally, kinetically and socially. However, when practiced diligently, they create a paradox—one that is easy to see in others and nearly impossible to see in ourselves. The very elements that make us great (ritual action, social distinction, status claims and solidarity) work on us, the brand stewards, too. And these powerful forces, if incubated (and not allowed to evolve through outside influence) will stunt our growth, make us grow a beard, get weird and disappear into the mountains.

3 brand credibility sink holes and 3 ways to crawl out.

Over time, I began to see the pattern in organizations that needed brand revitalization. They kept falling into 3 problem areas (sinkholes) that plague many successful passion focused industries like sports, outdoor and wellness. When the pattern is broken, by outside influence, leadership change or the pain of failure, it actually creates a stronger, more meaningful brand that will enjoy preference, marketplace success and even more cult-like stature.

Sinkhole 1. Visionaries vs. Frog boilers

Breakthrough brands are created by people with passion and vision.  People want to follow them. It’s easy for these visionary leaders to enroll others in their quest. The sinkhole doesn’t show up until after success arrives and the followers have key responsibility. Those in the pot, accustomed to the water temperature, tend to shift focus to the financial report and maintaining the status quo by emulating everyone else in the industry rather than innovation. They risk being boiled alive.
How to crawl out.
Forget about features, benefits, and competition. They are table stakes to any category. Forget about your long-storied history and the pain you might have around eroding relevance. Reconnect your brand team with the core purpose and higher ideal the product was created for in the first place, which was likely not just about making money. Then cast a bold new vision.
Think about Apple, between Jobs (ha!). Recall that Apple seemed unstoppable. Then everyone, including themselves, saw Apple as a dying brand. They all just sat in the pot until it began to boil. Remember that they revived their business through visionary leadership, outside influence, and a renewed focus on making human experiences visceral, universally ritualized and forging solidarity. When Apple focused on computing, they tanked. When the focused on revolutionizing something everyone loves (music) they rocked.
Questions to ask.
– Who is your Chief Vision Officer?
– Is their primary job description in conflict with the concept of vision?
– Are they involved in optimizing the business? If so you need an outside influence.

Sinkhole 2. Seed sowers and sacred cows.

Success sows the seeds of future brand failure. When something works we look for sacred cows to idolize. The brand stalls because, after everyone tires of the Facebook likes and high-fives, they focus their efforts on optimizing what worked, instead of earnestly working to evolve and adapt to our rapidly changing world. They try and win a race by standing still when they should be looking for new ways to take what they know and help more people.
How to crawl out.
Ask yourself some dangerous questions.
– What is your team doing to make cheeseburgers out of these cows?
– What does your product represent to people that is highly valued and difficult for them to replace? (Hint: it isn’t your jacket.)
– How can we flip this on its head to create a new conversation or add something meaningful to someone else’s budding conversation?
Then, once you know that you are in new territory, it’s time to craft a clear and relevant value proposition. The best example of this to me is a piece I wrote about Nike Fuel Band.

Sinkhole 3. Belly button lint artist.

When your company has done all the right things to build your brand –from having visionary leadership that has invented good products focused around an ideology, recruited employees that want to be indoctrinated with your philosophy –there is a natural tendency to believe that you are your best customers. This creates a closed ecosystem that chokes the company vision, stifles product development and creates marketing messages that are self-focused and trite. Need evidence? Every outdoor brand has a set of athletes or enthusiasts who flood their brand’s social media channels and website with their extreme adventures. Not everyone can be a NorthFace, ProBar, or Adidas. You have to find your own authenticity. Patagonia’s “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign is a great example of a well known brand using its values to move away from everyone else in the outerwear category.
How to crawl out.
Talk to your customers. All of them, and their friends who cannot relate to your brand message because “it’s just a little to hard-core” (and strangely, lacking authenticity for them).

The hard questions.

– What are the hopes and dreams of these people?
– How can you help those who want to belong to your cult, but will never go on an extreme trek, live a better daily life?
– How is your team reframing what you can do to be involved in this evolution?
– Who should you be inviting to tea?

We live in an information age and knowledge is power, but information and knowledge alone will not get you to where you want to go. It takes discipline. The process of successfully navigating a landmark brand shift requires open-mindedness, a rare mixture of confidence and humility and the ability to press on with a beginners mind while seeing a future that nobody else can see yet.

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