Brand evolution: an informed approach to market success

Brands are more than a company, product or service. They are an experience. A moment in time that is set within the context of the marketplace. In effective brand communication, expectations are set and when audiences interact with the brand and have the brand experience, success or failure results. Because the marketplace is in perpetual motion, you must carefully examine your brand in an ever-changing environment. Emerging technologies, new product and service entries, increased scientific knowledge, persistent unmet needs and economic realities all shape the market at any given moment. So how can you assure that your brand will not only achieve success, but also maintain it? The answer is evolution. Here are several factors to keep in mind as you examine your brand with the goal of sustaining adoption and loyalty.

Know the market. Don’t rely on assumptions.

Markets change. New dynamics are constantly in play. Research that’s even a year old may not accurately reflect trends, disruptions or advances. It’s critical to know where the market is today and have an informed view of where it is heading. Regularly scheduled temperature checks of the market can reveal change that must be responded to or reinforce ongoing brand strategies. Assessing the market can take many forms -- from formal market research to obtaining input from key thought leaders. Budget may limit the scope of discovery, but it should not be an excuse for moving forward without any assessment.

Don’t abandon the core of your brand.

It’s the heart of your brand. It’s what makes it meaningfully different. It’s why audiences adopted the brand originally. Your core is the foundation. It can be literal (tied to something concrete) or it can be figurative (tied to a philosophy, approach or commitment). Walking away from the core or stripping it from the brand causes confusion and uncertainty with audiences, and worse, can trigger a decline in credibility. When you understand how the market is evolving, the goal is then to determine how your brand (with its core in tact) can remain relevant.

Understand your brand’s equity.

Despite market shifts, attributes of your brand may have achieved equity. In assessing the brand, it’s important to understand what is resonating. What factors do targeted audiences value in your brand. What aspects of the brand have particularly strong and favorable perceptions? It could be name recognition, a reputation for reliability or earned long-term efficacy. As you consider ways to make sure your brand remains relevant, these are gems that must be maintained. Not all brands, however, establish equity, even over time. This could be due to a misalignment of the brand with the market from the time of launch. Regardless, if a brand has not achieved equity, this represents an opportunity for course correction. Focus on what makes your brand unique, why it addresses a need that competition does not, and why audiences should value it.

Know where you are in time.

Certain times are ideal for brand evolution. Mergers and acquisitions. Next generation releases. Strong competitive entries. Brand extensions. All of these represent opportunities when audiences are particularly receptive to change. Not change for change’s sake, but an evolution that represents purposeful progress. Don’t underestimate your audience’s ability and willingness to accept and adopt change. Today, more than ever before, customers know that markets are fluid and are highly motivated to meet individual and institutional needs. Anything from the demand to reduce cost without impacting performance to the desire to take advantage of the latest technologies, even customers who had been creatures of habit may feel motivated to move on. Again, strong reason to make sure your brand evolves, when it needs to, strategically.

Evolve your brand for the right reasons.

In-house politics. Management changes. Internal brand fatigue. These are not viable reasons for change, yet unfortunately can be real drivers. Brands need to be protected and nourished. By having an ear to the market, you’ll know when evolution is either necessary or an opportunity. You’ll also know when to stay the course. Business objectives, from gaining share to launching brand extensions, must be balanced with market perceptions and expectations. Don’t bend to internal pressures unless they are legitimate and warrant action.

Nothing personal, but focus on your customer.

Brand evolution is not based on personal likes and dislikes of brand stewards. It must be motivated by customer interest and demand. It can be challenging to separate personal preferences within the brand evolution process, but success is most often born from an intimate understanding of the customer profile. The closer and more personal the brand can be to its intended adopters (as opposed to those steering the brand) the greater insights and intelligence can be obtained, and the more likely success can be achieved.

Consistency counts.

As you embark on brand evolution, be deliberate in how you implement change. Execute consistently across the market with all brand audiences. Don’t take half steps or send mixed messages. Instead act decisively. This will minimize potential for confusion, skepticism and fragmentation. If budget will not enable clear and consistent communication, seriously contemplate the ramifications of inadequate support for change and the impact it could have on customer relationships, market perceptions and ultimately, sales.

Look through clear lenses.

Listening to the market is not always easy. Hearing customer perceptions of the brand and competitive landscape can be unsettling. But it remains imperative to see the market without bias. Criticizing audience perceptions is an exercise with no positive returns. Even if you disagree with your audience – even if the thoughts are factually incorrect – perceptions define reality and must be dealt with directly. Sometimes brands can evolve to meet customer need. Unfortunately sometimes they cannot. Leadership must be prepared for both scenarios.

Successful brands evolve thoughtfully over time. Successful evolution is synchronized with changing market dynamics and needs. The key is staying attuned to customer perceptions and not hesitating to take an honest look at your brand. Is there equity that continues to make the brand relevant that must be maintained? If evolution is needed, what form should it take and how can it best be introduced to the market in a credible manner. Brand evolution is an incredible opportunity to pursue long-term market success. Let your customers' needs help drive change when it is necessary and then determine the best way of accommodating (or leading) that change without abandoning the core of your brand.

by Jonathan D. Katz