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Your Brand is on Life Support. What Now?

When a brand has backed itself into a corner in consumers’ minds, often the internal team is the last to wake up and smell the coffee.

It’s painful to realize that the brand has been disrupted by changing marketplace conditions, that competitors have taken root, that buyers have moved on. At that point, there may no longer be a way for the brand to keep the promises it once stood for.

So it’s time for the marketing team and company leadership to collectively recognize what’s happening and why — and to chart a path forward.

How to Recognize the Symptoms of a Dying Brand

We’ve counseled troubled brands, and they come to us with any number of problems: loss of market share, loss of shelf space, loss of confidence from retail buyers and consumers, pricing pressure, commoditization, private label knock-offs, and more. The common denominator of these challenges is that consumers have found a product that’s new and trendy, or cheaper, or better suited to their lives, or more aligned with their values. The brand isn’t relevant anymore.

It’s easy to recognize the key factors contributing to the brand’s demise. Maybe it has been slow to respond to changing marketplace conditions, like new sales channels and shifts in the ways consumers find and purchase its products. New, better-funded, well-organized, or just hungrier competitors have entered the market. Perhaps the brand team has flat-out missed the evolving consumer preferences and lifestyle megatrends that changed perception of the brand. Or the leadership team is simply stuck — or arrogant — and unable to change with the times.

Do any of these scenarios feel familiar to you, perhaps painfully so?

You’re not alone. We find that marketing executives are often the first to recognize the symptoms. You see the signs because your job depends on watching the market and deeply understanding how consumers engage with your brand. While your ownership may not be paying attention to those details, you see the evidence first, and you know its implications.

What Marketers Can Do About Challenged Brands

This is a hard position to be in. You recognize what’s happening, fear the repercussions that may be coming your way, and worry about what’s next.

When a CMO of a troubled brand comes to us for help, she’s facing a very short window in which to execute a radical fix. The marketing staff is usually in disarray. And she’s also the bearer of bad news to the rest of the C-suite.

Having that conversation with your founder/owner and leadership team can be brutal. We get it: You’ve built relationships with these colleagues, you’ve talked about fears and dreams and ambitions, you’ve shared victories. Telling them, in as frank and loving terms as possible, that the ship is going down and that drastic measures are needed can be an abrupt wake-up call that they don’t want to hear. Your owner is likely to be embarrassed and deeply skeptical, because the business isn’t just business for him; it’s personal.

Because of those connections to each other and to the product, we know that your leadership has lost perspective, making it difficult for you to identify a cure for the illness plaguing your brand. We can bring that outside, neutral point of view to finding the right prescription.

It’s essential to be as objective and data-driven as possible when dealing with a lagging brand. Several years ago, we worked with a troubled, family-owned founder/owner retail company that sold a majority stake to a private equity firm. The newly installed president came to us for guidance because a competitor was unraveling their business. We presented data that made an irrefutable case for rebranding the company, overcoming internal resistance, and mapping a path to future growth. You have to use data in order to gain buy-in to create radical change.

Two Potential Outcomes for Lagging Brands

If the company is truly out of options and the founder is ready to get out, then the logical option may be to close or sell at a deep discount to an investor willing to fund significant changes to the business. It takes a lot of character to admit it’s time to move on.

But not every ill brand must die; it’s possible to build something new out of the ashes. Here’s an example: Not long ago, we worked with an ingredient company that sold both directly to consumers and to food manufacturers. Commoditization of its core product had caused significant loss in total revenue, and when we stepped in, the business and the brand were running on fumes.

We gathered tons of data and conducted interviews with leaders and trusted external partners to identify the brand’s deep DNA. We held an innovation workshop and showed them where their capabilities and passion and expertise could get them — opening their eyes to new possibilities. We killed the old brand and established a new holding company with two new independent units (one B2C and one B2B) and related brands. In this case, the best option was to reboot rather than close or sell.

As you’re considering a way forward for your troubled brand, know that it will take unwavering commitment from your leadership team. In the throes of reinvention, we find that executives are prone to second-guessing and foot-dragging. We’ll make sure you stay on track. We can help your team understand your brand’s place in a shifting market, identify the best outcome, and then use data as a compass to find the way forward.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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Who’s Your Real Competition? You’d Be Surprised

Brands today face fierce competition, strict velocity hurdles, and a retail landscape that’s been called “apocalyptic.” Brands that stand out are those that attract a tribe — a group of admirers who embrace not just the product but the ethos.

It’s nice to be loved, but why does this kind of consumer fervor matter to your business? Because these are your no-matter-what, forever-and-ever buyers.

Tribes aren’t focused on a product’s features and benefits; they know that the brand’s values ensure that the product will meet their needs and expectations. They aren’t worried about price; they’ll pay more for brands they’re personally aligned with. They aren’t interested in other products in the category because they’re card-carrying members of the tribe. That’s why even your direct competitors aren’t your enemies. Not really.

Us Against the World: A Powerful Message

These successful cult brands forge an “us vs. them” mentality among their loyalists that isn’t pitched against other brands in the category—the traditional business view of competition—but against some perceived ideology they consider adversarial.

As humans beings and social creatures, we are hardwired to split up into groups. (If you need proof of concept, just consider religion, politics, and sports.) Humans love the classic us vs. them struggle, and we instinctively polarize ourselves into groups based upon our ideologies and the badges associated with them. (Think: religious symbols, red state/blue state, and team jerseys).

This works for brands, too. But in order for a brand to overcome price resistance and become a category of one, leadership needs to move beyond thinking that companies are enemies (as in sports rivalries) and instead view ideas as enemies (like religion).

At Retail Voodoo, we recognize the power that people feel when they’re united in a common purpose. So we advise clients to make ideas, beliefs, and wrongness in the world their enemies.

How Lifestyle Brands Prosper Against Ideological Competition

Identifying an ideological enemy for your brand’s tribe to rally against will…

Trigger emotions, both among your employees and among your customers. Know that these strong emotions can be positive and negative; you may repel as many people from your brand as you attract. And that’s OK. Cult brands aren’t for everyone.

Create a platform for meaningful storytelling and character development. The hero’s struggle is a classic narrative archetype that you can apply in your communication.

Produce unexpected allies. It opens the door to logical partnerships with like-minded brands and organizations. Patagonia, for example, donates 1% of annual sales to support environmental groups around the world and funds get-out-the-vote efforts.

Strengthen the bonds people already have with your brand. In a world where it’s easy for individuals to feel they don’t have much impact, aligning with others who collectively support an ideology makes them feel empowered as part of a group.

Transcend sales position. People like to root for the underdog. But when a brand leads its category, it loses that “little guy” appeal. When the enemy isn’t others in the marketplace but a larger wrong in the world, it doesn’t matter of the brand grows to dominance.

Brands that Fight the Good Fight

Let’s look at several cult brands that have thrived by uniting their followers around a shared ideological competitor:

Harley Davidson

Audience: rugged “guys’ guys”

Enemies: The Man, corporate life, social conformity, suburban niceness

How it plays out: Harley Davidson’s messaging is all about freedom, individuality, and power. It doesn’t sell product; it sells a lifestyle.


Audience: modern women

Enemies: the stress and imbalance of modern life, self neglect, the dual responsibilities of work and family life, being too busy to have friends

How it plays out: Lululemon’s appeal is not reliant on activity; everyone can relate even if they’re not die-hard yoga practitioners. Looking at the athleisure category, Athleta is competing against Lululemon; Lululemon is competing against life itself.


Audience: strivers

Enemies: losing (the opposite of winning) because of under preparing; inequality in class, gender and race

How it plays out: Nike’s core message, “Just do it” empowers fans to believe that if they work hard enough — in spite of any physical or societal obstacles — they’ll be capable of winning, whatever that looks like. After 40 years, the brand still captures attention.

If your brand is competing with the other players in your category, you’re competing on features and benefits. That’s a losing game because you’ll inevitably cave on price. Without a meaningful brand promise, you lack ways to connect with people’s emotional state.

Modern cult brands thrive because they’ve reconsidered their competition and reframed how they talk about it. They’ve focused on how humans think and behave instinctively, creating a tribe united around righting a wrong. “Us against the world” creates an unbreakable bond between the brand and its fans.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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6 Ways a Trend Analysis Can Reveal Major Opportunity for Better-For-You Brands

While some people use astrology and tea leaves to predict the future, we prefer to employ a more reliable method: trend analysis.

Trend analysis gets you out of your own mindset, your conference room, and your current market landscape to anticipate what your future audience—and their needs and desires—might look like.

While it’s a necessary tool in many categories, it’s especially so in better-for-you food and beverages, where new products are constantly coming to shelf. Eating and diet habits are so susceptible to social influence that consumer preferences for food and beverage products shift with the breeze. One moment we’re all about the protein; the next we’ll be all about the carbs.

A trend analysis is important for repositioning a brand in a competitive space. It offers leadership a glimpse into the cultural zeitgeist occurring beyond their bubble.

There’s a huge difference between following trends, a short-term strategy, and analyzing them, looking deep into the future to align your product innovations with your future audience and their needs. Analysis enables you to make investments today that will deliver sales two, five, even 10 years down the road.

What a Trend Analysis Looks Like for Food & Beverage Brands

A trend analysis is like a unicorn: Everyone thinks they’ve seen one. Here’s our foundational definition:

A competitive market audit plus myriad syndicated consumer data, analyzed through the brand’s lens, and pointed toward solving a specific business problem.

There are three key components here: reliable consumer and market research, the brand (meaning, your purpose beyond making and selling product), and your business goals.

Furthermore, a trend analysis:

Starts with the category, not the brand.

Before we undertake a trend analysis, we do a category audit; it’s the kindling that sparks the campfire we’re roasting marshmallows on. This review covers your entire competitive set and your space in it. We look at how your brand is marketed from top to bottom and channel to channel, and then we benchmark that against your competition. This helps us identify holes in the marketplace, both now and many months from now.

Identifies megatrends that will affect your business over the long term.

When we conduct a trend analysis for a client, we seek out the megatrends on the horizon that will influence the future audience for the brand. These megatrends aren’t just constantly shifting consumer preferences for product attributes like flavor and ingredient, but rather deep-seated issues that affect how modern humans behave in their super busy lives.

Future-gazes through your brand lens.

Once we’ve collected information from a bunch of different sources about your customers and your marketing efforts, and we understand what competitors are doing and what demographic shifts are at play, we filter this input through your brand. That’s where the analysis happens. And through that lens is a look at future. But without a strong, well-articulated brand promise, that view is hazy, a guess. Your brand provides the clarity.

Paints a picture of your next audience of loyal customers.

We start with what the data tells us about your current customer, then envision how these megatrends will influence them. We build a straw man — a hypothetical, representative consumer persona—that allows the brand team to see into the future. You can then innovate with that customer squarely in mind.

Answers bigger questions than product iterations.

You can use near-term trends to make near-term decisions like flavor extensions or formula upgrades. But forward-looking analysis can guide you through the entire decision making process to identify what business the brand should be in. Where should you invest, or not, in product pipeline? What business are you currently in that should you exit? What product offerings create opportunity for us?

Requires expertise.

Anyone can buy a trend report. But the insights, the slicing and dicing and passing it through your brand promise to build a new audience of loyal customers—that requires expertise.

Yes, you could do it internally. But we wouldn’t recommend it; it’s like a dentist can’t fill her own cavity. An objective, solution-agnostic, research-driven partner is essential to create meaningful insights.

Trend Analysis: A Case Study

How can a trend analysis reshape a brand’s business? Our client Russell Stover was hoping to ride the better-for-you (BFY) trend of sugar-free/low-sugar chocolate. But their sugar-free product formula contained artificial sweeteners that didn’t appeal to the BFY buyer seeking healthy, natural chocolate. Sales weren’t what they’d hoped.

Our analysis revealed that they were talking to the wrong audience: People who choose sugar-free chocolate because they have to were fine with artificial sweeteners. BFY buyers who choose sugar-free chocolate because they want to were not. The fitness-minded BFY buyer would rather spend more on a quality product and treat herself occasionally than consume a lesser product every day.

We coached their leadership team to reformulate the product to remove artificial ingredients. Then we rebuilt the product line on Russell Stover’s brand promise: America’s favorite chocolate. The result? The brand reversed a three-year sales decline in less than a year.

If your company is marching along well, it makes sense to conduct a trend analysis every few years. But if your brand is being disrupted by competitors, your company would benefit from conducting a trend analysis every 12 months until you are ahead of the pack again.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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Seeking Growth in the World of Conscientious Consumers

Millennials embrace brands that promise something bigger than product: environmental sustainability, fair trade and employment, transparent practices, whole ingredients. You might think that this “conscientious consumerism” is a new-ish thing, born into fashion with this generation.

But it’s not. It’s decades old. And it has different flavors, with different implications for your brand.

The Birth of Conscious Consumerism

First, let’s differentiate the words ‘conscious’ and ‘conscientious.’ Conscious consumerism arose among young people in the 1950s and 60s in response to the industrialization of Big Agriculture. Teens and young adults were highly concerned about pesticides, animal welfare, and what industrially produced food was doing to their bodies and the planet. They were the readers of J.I. Rodale and Rachel Carson and the acolytes of Euell Gibbons. They were hippies before hippies became a defined group.

Conscious consumers were the founders of the naturals movement, establishing the first natural food co-op stores, embracing yogurt and whole grains, avoiding animal products, and growing their own food. Broadly speaking, they operated outside popular culture, becoming metaphorical off-the-grid people.

Over time, the conscious consumer movement evolved to encompass other ethical issues like fair trade and fair wages. Conscious consumers hold the brands they buy to the highest standards. They’re vegan, they wear non-leather shoes, they embrace B-Corp brands.

Fast Forward to Conscientious Consumerism

The conscious consumers’ kids are Gen Xers and Millennials. And while they share their parents’ preference for brands that are clean, sustainable, fair, and ethical, their beliefs are less strident. They’ve tweaked the definition of conscious consumerism to make room for modern life and creature comforts. They demand choices, not rules. They don’t want to stand culturally apart; they fly the flags of brands whose values sync with their own. They’re not willing to suffer for the cause. They wear their Toms shoes as they climb into their SUVs.

The Intersection of Conscious and Conscientious

Conscious consumers remain on the fringes of the natural marketplace as an outspoken minority group representing less than 10% of the market. Meanwhile, more than 50% of American consumers identify themselves as conscientious consumers — preferring brands that take a stand for something more than just a product, but less freaked out by the threat of Big Ag than their parents were.

Legacy better-for-you brands grew up right alongside those conscious consumers. And yet the market opportunity lies in that larger 50% segment of conscientious consumers who want clean, fair, whole products but aren’t die-hard, hemp-wearing, electric car drivers.

In order to expand your brand into this broader audience, you need to understand the psychology and behavior of the conscious consumer. They’re opinionated, passionate, and vocal, so brands fear alienating their core customer base in search of new fans. They’re also fickle, always chasing the fairest-trade-cleanest-greenest-most-exclusive product. Ironically, they’re the most likely to be the anonymous haters bashing you on social media — while still buying your product, because that’s what they’ve always done.

The key is to identify the boundary between your most radical customers and a broader audience whose values also align with yours in a less radical way. Don’t fear your core audience but instead start talking to the rest of the world to bring more people into the club.

Our client Hilary’s Eat Well was in this challenging position when they came to us. Hilary’s is a badge brand for vegans. The company saw opportunity to grow its audience with new products that expand its mission to improve the American diet and to support grain farmers. Brand leaders feared their longtime vegan customers would beat them up if they added non-vegan products, so we coached them to change messaging. We touted the brand’s allergen-free culinary ingredients and focused on the story of the brand’s commitment to healthy eating and family farming. With the new positioning, Hilary’s didn’t lose much of their core audience but won new fans and market share.

Every brand in the naturals category has a subset of passionate fans, people who found you on the shelf in your very earliest days and who love your product and what you stand for. But they’re a fixed asset. Growth comes from creating a larger tent.

Expanding the Audience for a Better-for-You Brand

To move your BFY brand forward, you have to leverage the passion of your most devoted fans, even knowing that they’ll be disappointed. How? Four keys:

  • Enroll them in helping the brand stay on mission — invite their feedback and let them know they’re an important part of what you do.
  • Enlist their help in doing right in the world — create ways for them to partner with you.
  • Evangelize what your brand stands for — encourage them to talk about your shared values.
  • Emphasize the brand’s mission — center your marketing and promotion not on price, features, and benefits, but on what you stand for.

We live in a consumer society, and today, consumption is far more than a simple economic action: It has socio-cultural and psychological implications. Once you extend a welcoming hand to the conscientious consumers, you’ll find them to be fiercely loyal, even more so than the older, more ideological conscious consumers.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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Take A Holistic Approach to Your Food Packaging System

It happens all the time in big CPG companies, but it’s surprisingly common in the better-for-you space too. Brands with a solid lineup of products and a loyal following extend into different categories. Sometimes marketers have identified a real, strategic opportunity to expand the brand’s reach. Sometimes, they’re just chasing trends, adding the healthy ingredient of the month or, heaven help us, pumpkin spice flavoring.

Either way, perhaps you find yourself in a situation where your flagship product is doing fine, but the line extension and new products are not meeting velocity hurdles. Your leadership team wants a band-aid fix — a packaging redesign — for the underperformers. And they want it quickly.

Slow down.

Packaging Is Only Part of the Problem

Before considering a one-off design tweak of a handful of products, it’s essential to understand why they’re troubled. Generally, lackluster performance if a subcategory comes down to one of three problems:

1) The packaging of the line extension is incompatible with the brand’s overall look and feel, so consumers don’t recognize the connection. Bringing these products under the larger brand umbrella is an easier fix because you can leverage the strength of the flagship — letting people know it’s the same brand they trust, but a different product.

2) The brand overall has lost its way. When marketers look at the product, they’re missing the bigger picture of what’s going on with the brand. Instead of asking why the product isn’t doing well, ask what’s going on with the brand. When the brand is healthy and the packaging is driven by an underlying strategy, its equity shows up whatever category you’re in. Customers hear that call to the deep when they see the brand in another aisle; they feel that familiar emotional response. They think, “this makes sense” instead of wondering, “what is this?”

3) The extension — the product itself — is incompatible with the brand’s ethos and promise. This signals a deficiency in your company’s approach to innovation. And it’ll take more than a packaging refresh to boost sales or overcome the loss of consumer trust in a product that’s so off-target.

A Systems Approach to Packaging

Overhauling your lackluster sellers alone, without looking at your entire lineup, poses serious risk to your brand equity.

When clients come to us with this we’ve-got-to-fix-this-now extension problem, it’s almost always budget-driven. Products aren’t meeting sales goals, and the sales team’s panic rises up to the C-suite.

Instead of taking a piecemeal approach to solving a packaging problem, we advocate a systematic approach. System thinking considers how your brand promise connects all your products across all categories with all your core customers. Changing one element of your brand’s visual identity on a single product affects how customers perceive your entire line. System thinking reveals opportunities that naturally arise out of the brand’s interconnected web of existing products and customers.

For a good example of a holistic approach to food packaging, take a look at Kettle brand. Going beyond the original kettle-cooked, plain potato chip, they’ve made just about every line extension play you can imagine in the snack space. Additional flavors? Check. How about Fiery Thai and Chili Lime. New formulations? Got it. Some chips are prepared in almond or avocado oil. Category expansion? You bet. They have added tortilla chips. Look at their entire line, and you’ll see that the Kettle brand mark dominates. On every package. There’s no mistaking these products for Frito Lay’s.

Inconsistent Packaging = Confused Consumers

Marketers often make the mistake of outfitting their line extensions in packaging that focuses on product attributes — flavor profiles, for example. Instead, the brand should remain front-and-center, just as it is on the flagship line. There should be no question in consumers’ minds that this is all part of the same family.

Because there’s so much noise in the store environment, it doesn’t take much to distract the shopper and make her think, “Hmm, I’m not sure if this product is from the same company I know.” Inconsistency in a packaging system makes it difficult for the consumer to make the connection between one product and another, especially in different parts of the store. You risk damaging not just your relationship with consumers, but also with retailers, partners, and investors.

If your brand isn’t crystallized in people’s minds — across your entire suite of products, across every category and every channel — it loses its position of prominence. A piecemeal approach to packaging refinement will produce a piecemeal customer experience.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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Top 5 Marketing Regrets After Rebranding

In the hands of the right CEO, CMO, and marketing team a rebrand becomes a powerful tool. But rebrands are tough. Rebrands frequently fail to generate results. Rebranding sucks. So why do it? Well, fortune, fame, and glory all lie in the balance, right?

Rebranding has produced persistent frustrations … This white paper answers your most pressing question: “How do I make my efforts at rebranding not suck?” So if you’re sure you want to go through with it, we have the answers you’re looking for.

Learn not only when and why to rebrand (and when not to rebrand) but discover the common regrets marketers have after spending an entire year rebranding their whole company and not getting the results they need.

Rebranding is a powerful but tricky landscape to navigate. The goals of a rebrand should be organizational clarity, deeper audience engagement, upgraded channel strategy, employee engagement and retention, and, of course, sales.

Many of our clients come to us as a newer employee at an inspiring brand who has been tasked with “fixing” the brand — frequently on the coattails of a rebrand with their previous employer. (It’s partly why they got the job, right?) They have had various levels of success with that rebrand, but are generally frustrated and dissatisfied with the overall process and its outcomes. There is a shared set of common, post-rebrand regrets.

Top Marketing Regrets After Rebranding

1. Changing for the wrong reasons

Given the time and cost associated with the rebranding, you would think that most people would only undertake it when their brand is outdated, broken or has been disrupted. However, difficult as it may be to believe, boredom with the brand is an all too common reason many companies decide to make changes.

Common symptoms: A serial C-suite guru recently moved into the corner office and wants a rebrand on their resume. Not everyone across the business is aware that change is imminent because the case for change was not used to bring people along before implementing the rebrand. When the new brand appears, people are scratching their heads, thinking its just another new logo and the only impact it has for them is that they will likely get a new tee shirt.

How to avoid rebranding for the wrong reasons: Find out what the business problems are before you decide a brand change is the answer. If the brand isn’t broken and there appears to be no real opportunity to disrupt and therefore take the lead in the category, do something to affect the business besides rebranding.

2. Lack of team alignment

Alignment requires ecosystems thinking. When you don‘t get enough of the right people in the room at the same time, buy-in may not be possible. It cannot be done if you opt to stay safe and snuggly inside the silo of marketing. Don’t get me wrong, working within the discipline of marketing is key, in fact, the marketing department should drive the project. But if you only involve the marketing team in the rebrand, you are setting yourself up for internal conflict. No matter how good you are, after the grand unveiling of all the hard work, your management and sales teams will come to you with details you did not consider — things that may not have crossed your mind to consider.

Common symptoms: It’s a new day, but you struggle with the same marketing problems. Sales team (and other internal teams) are not buying into the new brand because they either don’t understand it, don’t agree with it or the process of rebranding has alienated them along the way. As a result, your company’s executives are not only not promoting the rebrand but distancing themselves from it.

How to avoid lack of alignment: Rebranding requires that your company’s leadership participate both psychologically and strategically. Without their direct involvement, you cannot get deep enough into the realities facing the business to affect change. And you need their hammer. You need someone to bang the gavel and declare it so. Bring in key stakeholders from cross-functional disciplines within your organization and ask them to commit to taking the journey together.

3. Unactionable insights and strategies

Most marketers assume that creative implementation will be the biggest hurdle of a rebrand. They fail to identify and properly prepare for other hurdles along the way. A rebrand goes way beyond the marketing budget and an OOH (Out-of-home) campaign. When done well, a rebrand should provide actionable changes throughout the entire business that will improve your company’s ability to clearly make promises and then provide simple, actionable insight into how your brand should go about keeping them.

Common Symptoms: The rebrand requires a media spend and takeovers that your board will never approve, which makes the rebrand feel like just another advertising campaign to grab short-term attention for your brand. So that 500-page PDF which highlights the rebrand never gets opened by anyone but you and your agency. Other department heads and people within the organization who are familiar with the perils of rebranding don’t want to discuss your project because they working hard not to say, “I told you so”.

How to avoid unactionable insights and strategies: At the outset, establish a two-year timetable and budget for your rebrand to make sure you don’t get stuck with pie-in-the-sky thinking and no time or funds to implement it. No matter how savvy the team, there will always be that anniversary package that nobody is even thinking about yet, and updating all of your brand’s digital properties requires a matrix the size of Canada. Before you embark, manage everyone’s expectations by letting them know that it’s a long process.

4. Underestimating the pace of competition

Your rebrand is all about connecting with new audiences and finding sustainable growth opportunities. It sounds simple, but many feel the pressure to move quickly because the pace of change is exponential. It’s too easy to forget that while your team is mid-stream on a big rebranding project, your competitors are likely in the process of optimizing, refining or reinventing their brand. So you go black-ops and focus on the category leaders without considering challenger’s brands and product offerings in adjacent categories.

Common symptoms: Your brand sounds just like your competition. When you go shopping, you see 12 brands doing what your team thought would be unique. You begin to see that your brand‘s innovation pipeline is driven by feature and benefits and mostly knockoffs of other brands

How to avoid underestimating the pace of competition: You need to know the value proposition of your competitors and assess whether they successfully represent their company’s values and offerings. In order to compare your brand to competitors, you will need to conduct a comprehensive brand audit. Armed with the insights you gather here and a values-based approach, you will be far more attuned to what everyone is doing and therefore more likely to make your brand different.

5. Focusing only on visual change

Some people believe that rebranding is really just choosing a new name, new logo, or a new corporate identity. The problem with staying skin deep during a rebrand is that it’s just too easy to ignore changing consumer preferences, new competitors, and new human truths. These three drivers should be the impetus behind your decision to undergo a rebrand.

When a rebrand focuses purely on visual change it creates a risk that is often unintended. You may lose people who love your current brand because a visual approach is a beauty contest. And beauty, for all its juiciness, cannot fathom the depths of emotional attachment nor see the variety of ways that emotion, loyalty, and belonging play out in brand narratives and throughout your entire marketing ecosystem.

Common Symptoms: The new look tested really well but failed to create velocity. And your brand’s social media channels are filled with consumer backlash — people rant about the change. In the face of pushback, the rationale for the creative is no longer meaningful.

How to avoid focusing only on visual change: Take the time to understand the ways in which consumer preferences have shifted and what, if any, implications those shifts have on your brand’s positioning in consumers’ minds. Failure to dig deep enough into the human truths driving the change will increase the likelihood of failure.

Rebranding is a business focused, marketing-led response to external forces — not a re-decorating project

Rebranding is about changing the trajectory of your business. The life and death of your brand may hang in the balance. So don’t do it unless the industry, your company’s reputation, changing consumer preferences, or competition has caused the ground underfoot to shift.

Once you determine a rebrand is in order to stay viable, grow, and lead, approach it like you would having brain surgery. Go to someone you know is committed to not only keeping you alive but also to make sure that you are a badass when you wake up.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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Food & Wellness Brands, Beware: How Redesigns Go Wrong

When you were a kid, you probably begged your parents to let you have cookies before you had dinner, right? You wanted the sweets before you ate your vegetables.

Now that you’re running marketing for a food, beverage or wellness brand, you want the good stuff (cool-looking, trendy identity, and packaging) before you’ve had the good-for-you stuff (business strategy).

We’ll be the grown-ups here and tell you: No design until you’ve done the strategy first.

This design-before-strategy trap is becoming even more prevalent: We’re finding that about 75% of our prospective clients just want something pretty and they want it now. Why the rush? These are the most common reasons we see for moving forward quickly with design changes:

  • Brands haven’t allocated appropriate resources (dollars or people) to develop a sound foundational strategy.
  • CEOs and CMOs have been burned in the past by hasty redesigns, and they’re not convinced they should spend the time or money to do it right. See the irony here?
  • People in business tend to overestimate their own taste and expertise; they’ve supervised design projects before so they think they can fast-track the latest one.
  • Design is a tangible outcome and research is not, and it’s hard for people to be patient enough to wait for that outcome.
  • There’s a false sense of urgency: the sales team wants the change now, retailers are barking at the door, and competitors are coming into the market.

We get it. Setting the stage for an effective design or redesign takes time: The process we walk our clients through typically runs six to eight months. It’s intimidating: Research might reveal mistakes you’ve made; category reviews might show that your competitors are trouncing you at retail. It takes resources: You need to allocate a budget and secure the commitment from your leadership team.

And it’s worth pointing out that brand strategy does not equal creative strategy; one comes before the other, which is important to keep in mind when you set your expectations for working with an agency.

The Problems of Redesigning without Strategy

Design becomes a beauty contest. Let’s line up three splashy new packaging systems and pick one. Which one? The one the loudest voice in the room (the CEO) favors. This is a great approach only if your leadership team knows exactly how to pick a winning, on-brand, culturally relevant design that not only appeals to current customers but also captures a huge new audience. (I have met just two in thirty years who could do this.)

Design is just guess. Without the appropriate competitive analysis, trend forecasting, white-space mapping, and brand-driven positioning language, creative execution is a total shot in the dark. How do you make design decisions that will stand out on shelf, attract buyers, and stand the test of time if you don’t understand what the market needs and wants?

Design is a short-cut solution. You’re under pressure from retail partners seeking greater velocity, and you need a redesign — fast. So you skip the three months of strategy work and go straight to picking colors and typefaces.

Design is knee-jerk reaction. You’re just chasing trends in search of a sales spike. So you redesign every 18 to 24 months in response to what’s hot in ingredients, graphics, or food photography.

Redesigning becomes an endless cycle. When the creative execution fails to move the needle, and it inevitably does, the marketing team takes another swing at it. Bad design begets bad design, and pretty soon everyone thinks it’s the design’s (and the designers’) fault. It’s the natural outcome every time.

What does a smart redesign in our space look like? Check out Kashi’s 2016 brand overhaul. They updated the logo, dropping the swishy rectangular background and emphasizing the leaf motif. The mark plays a more prominent role on packaging, yet it’s still familiar to fans. New boxes feature super-close product photography on a stark white background. A primary typography system reinforces the brand’s iconic green. It’s a pretty major redesign, but still completely in line with what the brand was before. The Kellogg team clearly built the redesign against Kashi’s existing brand strategy and in response to the marketplace, instead of changing for the sake of change.

And we’ll bet that Kashi’s marketers won’t be doing another redesign anytime soon.

You only have to look at Coke and Pepsi to know that a brand’s design can last for years. They hang on to those design systems because there’s so much equity — customers freak out if the brands make even the smallest tweak.

So, that last design your brand team unveiled … How’s that going? Not what you wanted? Thinking about a do-over? Let us guide you through it — the right way.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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6 Ways Agencies Fail Food & Beverage Brands

As the food and beverage category continues to hone in on the importance of natural brands across all channels, getting investors is no longer the challenge — because better-for-you brands are driving category growth and, consequently, private equity investment in food outpaces all other categories. The pace of change in the last three years has outstripped even the staggering changes of the previous decade. Natural and better-for-you brands have moved beyond the realm of Whole Foods and made Costco and Walmart the biggest retail buyers of organic products.

The game has changed; investment opportunities appear to be falling from the sky for anyone with a clean ingredient deck and a crumb of a brand story.

But we have spent the better part of the last decade deep in the boardrooms, farms, and factories with some of the well-respected players who have driven this change, and we have some potentially bad news. If you have invested in rebranding within the last three years and are not experiencing the growth you expected, your agency may have failed you. This white paper explores six unexpected ways in which we have seen the agency drive the naturals brand off the proverbial cliff.

1. Sanitizing the truth about your brand. When the creative agency doesn’t take the time to learn, analyze, and ultimately challenge the category conventions or the closed-loop thinking of the founder-owner, the company’s culture, product offering, and vision, they inadvertently default to cool and clever tactics. Without mind-melding over the real pain points (or legitimate white space innovation), any creative outreach is more likely to be slick and not grounded in business strategy. And — because they are moving quickly — they tell the brand owners what they want to hear instead of the sometimes deeply blemished truth in order to get the creative ideas approved. The result is unownable beauty.

Need proof? Flip over any better-for-you packaged food and read an origin story that sounds like this.

“I had this challenge/pain point and so I made a company. Insert clever/humorous/witty tone to cover up the lack of depth in the origin story and add sizzle.”

– The Earnest Founder

2. Faking the category audit. Was your category audit insightful or did your agency merely check the box? The most common complaint we hear from brand owners, particularly in the naturals space, is that their category audit was too sterile and looked like something an intern could have produced using Google in an afternoon.A meaningful category audit must include the sometimes-ugly reality of retail. At a minimum, this means that the category audit should showcase lighting conditions, shelf restrictions, and key adjacencies from multiple locations. This along with analysis of your channel strategy is important if your category audit is to show you both potential threats and budding opportunities for your brand.

3. Claiming social media engagement will get you trial and velocity. Many agencies are still telling clients that likes and mentions will drive sales. And perhaps while the meter is running on that vegan snack fitness influencer contract there is some traction. We have seen it time and again — when that contract ends, the likes go away; the brand is forced to resort to buying likes with coupons and promo codes. Product efficacy, a contrarian point-of-view, and transparency to back up any claims of authenticity go further than any celebrity endorsement. And while we won’t discount the growth opportunities of influencer marketing, defaulting to this single tactic won’t get you the velocities you’re looking for. Bottom line, your marketing strategy needs to be multi-faceted.

4. Calling star-power strategic branding. Using celebrities can be a powerful endorsement for your brand, particularly when they fit the positioning of your brand ethos. We have seen the likes of Jennifer Aniston, Kobe Bryant and many others assist with a brands growth potential. However, branded products and famous people in ads only works for a few minutes. Once you stop paying endorsements, your brand disappears. You also do not have control over that person’s personal life. You can look to Tiger Woods or Lance Armstrong to see what sort of collateral damage a celebrity can have on your brand. Unless you are a multi-national, we suggest you spend your marketing dollars elsewhere.

5. Assuming your consumer speaks your brand’s language. Marketing or advertising filled with insider jargon, certification claims, and tons of “us” vs. “them” verbiage emphasizes the negatives instead of the lifestyle associated with the brand. These tactics won’t grow a brand, increase its sphere of influence (among people, not influencers), nor get into a new customer’s consideration set. This approach automatically assumes that your consumer-to-be speaks your language. In extreme instances, we have seen this create a retail environment where the front-line employees have been poisoned by the marketing team to think unflatteringly about customers. The right way is to use brand strategy to decide why your brand exists in the world and who you can help because of it. Once clear on your brand’s purpose, the act of profiling your audience moves from merely demographic and leans into ambition, hope, human tendencies, and inspiration. We all want to believe we are working toward becoming a better version of ourselves. Brands, when they consider real people to be worthy of them, help us get on and stay on the path.

6. Using squishy strategy so the creative team isn’t fenced in. The agency creates a strategy, the client signs off, and then… the creative team comes up with a cooler idea. So the agency is forced to change the strategy to match the creative concept. Abraham Lincoln once asked, “How many legs does a dog have if you count the tail?” He answered, “Four. Calling the tail a leg does not make it a leg.” Killer creative ideas are not brand strategy. Killer creative’s intent is to get people’s attention so that they notice (and buy) your brand. Brand strategy’s intent is to evolve the company, its culture, offerings, sales opportunities, and ultimately its contribution to society in order to grow a large tribe of believers both inside and outside the company. A case in point: In our work with Essentia Water, we inherited a brand strategy that was clearly designed to produce adverts filled with blonde women in white yoga pants sitting on the beach (despite the fact that the data pointed to a racially diverse audience focused on being active in radically diverse ways). After scrapping that strategy and building one from the ground up, says this brand is on fire.

Consumers’ needs, competition, marketplace, and channels all change. Which means positioning needs to be refined or overhauled every once in a while to make sure your brand stays relevant.

We recommend that each brand that we work with establishes a scheduled audit and tune-up at a minimum of five-year increments — unless something significant has happened with your market or something is NOT working. Obviously, if your brand is losing share, don’t wait five years to make a change. But you should also be aware that a brand strategy driven rebound takes take 12-24 months before you can sit back and know with confidence that you have nailed it.

If you have gone through a rebrand in the last 18-24 months and aren’t realizing growth, I suggest a reality check that begins with the following questions before blaming your current agency.

  1. Is your internal team truly following the new strategy or have you tweaked it to make yourselves more comfortable?
  2. Did your strategy produce an innovation pipeline that has retail buyers looking to your brand for what is next in the category?

If after careful reflection you feel like your agency has failed you, or it’s time for a tune-up, it may be time for Retail Voodoo.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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Change is Hard. These Seven Tactics Make it Easier to Manage

“Things change.” “Change is good.” “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Platitudes about change abound, but here’s one thing you won’t see on a motivational poster backed by a scenic mountain photo: Change is hard.

It’s supposed to be. Change is risky, scary, inconvenient, messy. And we see it all, up close. Food and wellness brands come to us when they’re on the brink of change or in the thick of it — change that they haven’t anticipated and don’t necessarily want, often brought on by rapidly shifting consumer preferences and a turbulent retail landscape.

The changes we facilitate tend to be monumental — not a packaging tweak but a holistic repositioning or refocused brand strategy. And sometimes they’re painful, as we discovered when one of our recent clients came to us because they were floundering after a rebrand/renaming. Based on our consumer data that showed that customers still knew the brand by its original name, we recommended that the company return to that name. It was a real leadership moment: The CEO had to step up, own the mistake, and be the bright light shining through the chaos.

So let’s say you’re the wolf: You’ve been tasked with instigating or managing a seismic shift in your organization. Maybe there’s been a management shakeup, or the CEO may be looking to sell. Maybe you once led the category but you haven’t kept up with consumers’ wants and whims and you’ve lost share. Maybe a new competitor is chewing up the category. Whatever’s sparking the change, you’re expected to guide the team through it.

Take a deep breath and ready yourself with these tactics we’ve gathered from helping our clients deal with change wisely and well:

1. Acknowledge the fear. Understand the psychology of what you’re about to do and don’t dismiss your team’s fears. If change is challenging for you, it’s likely more so for others in the organization, who feel powerless and worry that their comfortable routines will be turned upside-down. Listen and share frequently and strategically; gather input and buy-in along the way. But don’t unveil the finished work until it’s ready for prime time.

2. Expect resistance. From all quarters: long-term employees who are happy with how things have been done forever, finance & operations people who are charged with getting results, marketing staffers who know the biggest impact will be on their department. Know that the sales team will be early and vocal objectors — they’ve been successfully selling the product for years, and they’ll object to changing their pitch. But they’ll also be the fastest adopters once they “get” the vision.

3. Start with strategy. A strong strategic foundation — one that addresses consumer trends, acknowledges market realities, and drives business growth — gives the team confidence and common ground. Strategy becomes a toolbox that guides everyone — from the CEO to the front desk receptionist — on how to behave in their role to contribute to the brand’s success.

4. Enlist advocates. Creating a solid group of key stakeholders at the outset gives you an internal leadership team that co-authors the brand and becomes your ally when it comes time to strategically leak news. Encourage your advocates to share their personal experiences as insiders involved in the process along with information about how the project is unfolding and what’s to come.

5. But know that not everyone will get on board. In fact, we request that HR management is part of any rebranding or repositioning project we’re involved with because there’s always a training/coaching component to change. And staffers who resist and fight their way through the strategy development process may need to be asked to leave before they poison the well. Ask your HR partner for help identifying potential resisters and getting them on track or out the door.

6. Make it feel special. Tap your internal advocates to help build a sense that the change represents an opportunity to further a brand they’re passionate about. Connect this initiative to the brand’s greater purpose. Celebrate milestones and create momentum to fuel excitement.

7. Use language to gain buy-in. Reality exists in language. Having the brand strategy and talking points that answer questions will be key to calming your team’s nerves. We use language to teach the teams we work with how to describe their products and why they exist in the world. This is especially crucial for the sales team: Unless they buy in, they’ll never be able to make a presentation about the product.

Change can be humbling — it means admitting that what you’ve been doing isn’t working anymore, that your competitors are moving faster than you are. Or that you’re just flat-out wrong. That’s a real test for company leaders.

Done well, change can be a catalyst not for fear and internal squabbling, but for collaboration, growth, and rededication to the cause. The objective is not comfortable complacency, but transformational business success. On the other side awaits greater clarity, sharpened vision, and teams that are aligned with the vision and confident in moving forward.

Change ain’t easy. That’s why it’s essential. And when you’re ready, we’re here to help.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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

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.

David Lemley

David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

Connect with David