I recently read an essay in The New Yorker by John Suroweiki about the decline of brands. He led with the story of Lululemon, whose “cultlike following” made the brand seem more like a celebrity than a business–until quite recently, when a quick succession of negative news, some of it self-inflicted, deflated the value of the brand dramatically–kind of like Tiger Woods driving his Cadillac into a fire hydrant at 2:00 in the morning.
Clearly, transparency has made the world of marketing more volatile, which was Suroweiki’s point. In this regard, the rapid rise and fall of brands is simply more anecdotal evidence of the accelerating pace of change in modern life. From a marketer’s point of view, however, the really interesting question is this: What kind of news triggers the unraveling of brand value? And can some news make a brand more resilient rather than more fragile?
Brand value is entirely a function of the relationship between a brand and its audience. The whole idea of loyalty beyond reason is that a customer feels connected to a brand in ways that eclipse the actual features and benefits of a product. That relationship between a brand and a customer is not like a relationship between two people. The brand is, at best, a useful fiction. And the other party to the relationship is not a single individual but many thousands or millions or, in some cases, hundreds of millions of potential customers. In my experience, when a brand is successful, its relationship with any one customer is more like the relationship between a celebrity and a fan.
The analogy is not perfect, but it is helpful. When I feel a connection with an actor, a singer, an athlete, a politician or a celebrity CEO, I understand that in some ways the story I have bought into has been crafted and polished. I know that there is some blending of reality and fiction in what I see, but if the story rings true, I suspend my disbelief and allow myself to feel connected anyway. Then I sit back and watch for the surprises.
The element of surprise is vitally important, because a relationship cannot stay fresh if it coasts along for years in a completely expected way. Consistency doesn’t hurt, but consistency alone can’t keep the spark alive in any relationship. In my relationship with a brand, however, just as in a relationship with a celebrity, there are two kinds of surprises: surprises that delight me because they confirm my faith in the story while deepening it and surprises that betray the story by revealing the lie in it.
Think about the difference between Justin Timberlake and Justin Bieber. Both started as teen idols, but Justin Timberlake has continually surprised his audience in ways that suggest he is more than meets the eye. He collaborated with more seasoned musicians, deepening his musical style. He proved he had both a sense of humor about himself and solid comedic chops on Saturday Night Live. He displayed unexpected acting ability and versatility in feature films including The Social Network, Friends with Benefits and Inside Llewyn Davis. And he raised so much money for charitable causes that he was named the most high-impact celebrity for charity in a survey by The Daily Beast. Justin Bieber, on the other hand, has surprised us at every turn with his ability to live down to our worst expectations–claiming Anne Frank as a “Belieber,” egging his neighbor’s home, hiring a swagger coach and, most recently, getting arrested for drag racing drunk.
On the brand side, Nike is rich with examples of both good and bad surprises. Sport is the world Nike lives in, and the brand has always been most engaging when it has smashed together the two deepest story themes in the world of sport: triumph of the human spirit versus victory at all cost. Both themes are about winning, but winning has a very different quality depending on which lens you are looking through.
If Nike is at its best when these two themes collide in an interesting way, then the surprise that most deeply betrayed that story was the news about Nike’s offshore labor practices that surfaced in the early 1990s. The company clearly thought it was living in a victory-at-all-cost story about how to win in a viciously competitive business environment. But all over the world, members of Nike’s audience raised their hands to say, “Hey, wait a minute. What about the human spirit of the guy making my shoes?” The controversy undermined the Nike brand and knocked the company off its game for years.
On the other hand, an example of the good kind of surprise is Nike’s habit of standing by its celebrity athletes when they exhibit a variety of all-too-human weaknesses and failings. It is clearly possible for an athlete to go too far–Lance Armstrong, for example–to the point where he betrays the idea of sport itself. But there are many more athletes whom Nike has continued to support long after their other sponsors have abandoned them. To me, that is an acknowledgement that it wouldn’t be victory at all cost if there were not a heavy cost, and it wouldn’t be triumph of the human spirit if it did not entail overcoming some serious human weaknesses.
In the way it handles its relationship with its athletes, Nike seems to put its brand on the line in order to live up to its own story. That is not to say that all the other sponsors of, say, Tiger Woods, should have been more loyal as we all watched Tiger wrestle with his own demons. Triumph of the human spirit versus victory at all cost does not drive the story of Accenture, AT&T, Gatorade, General Motors or TAG Heuer. On the other hand, that all these brands felt compelled to drop Tiger Woods immediately on the news of his very human failings and that their dropping him seemed to cost them very little in terms of brand equity suggests that the relationship between Tiger and each of those brands was fairly shallow to begin with. Which only demonstrates that it’s not much of a story if it doesn’t cost you something to tell it.
Lululemon, to the extent that its world overlaps that of Nike, was clearly playing on the triumph-of-the-human-spirit side of the story. That energy was at odds with the high cost of the clothes and the elite, club-like culture of the brand. A deeper sense of meaning might have provided more of an anchor for the brand; without it, the story always seemed pretty fragile. And so it proved to be.
If you have any thoughts about resilient brands and fragile brands, I’d love to hear them.