Remaking a Beloved Brand: How to Keep Your Loyalists and Hook New Fans

08.08.18 / David Lemley

Renovating an existing brand is never easy. But when you’re overhauling a beloved brand with passionate employees and diehard customers, it’s painful. Really painful.

You can’t alienate your loyal buyers — and risk a dip in sales — in the chase for a broader audience. Nor can you alienate your internal supporters, those who’ve been with the company from the beginning and carry the brand’s DNA. With both groups, the devotion that makes them fierce allies also makes them speed bumps for change. (And as we’ve explored, business change ain’t easy.)

So why endure the agony? Because not doing anything means the death of the brand. These are the two most common prompts we see for this type of rebrand:

  1. You’re seeing some erosion in marketplace relevance: a dip in sales, a disruptive competitor. You’ve gone from being the must-buy to being seen as outdated in your category.
  2. You’ve got new leadership (perhaps that’s even you) tasked with a business turnaround. You have to get traction and prove to your retail partners that the change will make a difference, and the fastest way to telegraph that is a rebrand.

The path forward in redefining your brand already exists: Use data to scrub away the BS that’s clouding your judgment. We’ll show you how that’s possible based on the work we did with two beloved brands.

Renovating a Flagging Sub-Brand

Russell Stover was the first company to make sugar-free chocolate that actually tastes like chocolate. Then Hershey entered the game and gobbled up a big chunk of the market. Management couldn’t understand why the brand wasn’t growing at a time when shoppers were becoming more health-conscious.

Consumer data gave us three key insights: First, those sugar-free buyers were reluctant buyers. They were consuming sugar-free products because they had to, primarily to manage diabetes. Two, the product formulation contained an artificial sweetener, which gave consumers pause. And three, the brand’s visual language felt unsophisticated, almost medicinal. The packaging misrepresented the “tastes like real chocolate” attribute, making the product look like a deprivation instead of a treat. And the ingredients misaligned with the expectation of the “better for you” consumer seeking not just a lower-calorie product but also one without artificial sweetener.

Our recommendations: Reformulate and redesign. We recaptured the Russell Stover brand’s heritage of great taste, appealing to chocolate lovers who need to reduce their sugar intake rather than chasing better-for-you buyers.

The lesson here? The trend you think you can leverage — in this case, the BFY trend — may be what’s killing you, and you can’t use sleight-of-hand or advertising to trick the consumer. We took the liability and turned it into an asset: Don’t sell the low sugar; sell the real chocolate taste.

Backfilling Aging Loyalists

REI built a following among avid outdoor enthusiasts who geek out over the technical specs of their hiking packs and climbing gear. But REI hit more than just a speed bump. Their problem was twofold: First, many of those early REI adopters were getting older and no longer participating in their sports as frequently or at the same high level. More important, though, newbies were put off by what the die-hards loved: the technical, geeky nature of the brand’s retail experience and messaging.

We used external research and competitive profiling to overcome a longstanding set of internal strategic assumptions that existed because employees believed their customers were just like them. (We call this the Brand Credibility Paradox.) We leveraged REI’s membership data and other market intel to show them that their core audience was aging and that their longstanding messaging was not resonating with a new generation.

So we transformed REI’s messaging, moving away from technical aspects and product performance and focusing instead on the experience of being in the great outdoors. This approach appeals to both old-timers who have a romantic association with their sport and to millennials who dream of an active outdoor lifestyle.

The lesson here? What has made your brand a magnet for longtime fans (and for your employees, too) may just be the attribute that alienates your next generation of customers.

Brands have the power to create a small tribe that no competitor can reach, but eventually, you’ll wind up only talking amongst yourselves. To grow — and we assume that’s why you’re here — you have to tap into the thing that the loyalists love about your brand and amplify it so others hear the call.

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