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Is Your Brand a Fading Icon?

At the end of a recent NYT article about RadioShack was a quote that caught my eye. The head of a turnaround advisory firm, insisting that the RadioShack brand would live on even if the company went under, said:

You could poll any American and they’ve probably heard of RadioShack. That’s worth something to someone.

In fact, with RadioShack teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, the vast awareness that its brand enjoys may be its most valuable asset. The brand is an icon, and that is worth something, but it is apparently not worth enough to keep the company from going under.

In the world of story, there is a difference between an icon and a real character. An icon reminds you of a story you’ve already heard while a character plays a role in a story that is still unfolding. Betty Crocker provides a great example of both. In 1945, Fortune named her the second most popular woman in America–after Eleanor Roosevelt–even though Betty Crocker was entirely fictional. She had a popular network radio show, her cookbooks were a staple in kitchens across the country, and people sought her advice on domestic problems well beyond the kitchen. She was the Martha Stewart of her time. Over the next few decades, however, General Mills made a series of adjustments to her image and persona, presumably in the interest of keeping her contemporary and “relevant.” Betty Crocker slowly lost that first-person connection with her audience. Today, for most people, she is little more than a signature and a red spoon.

For a brand, evoking nostalgia is a lot better than evoking indifference, but it is not equity. To get from icon to equity, there has to be an authentic story that the audience is eager to hear. An icon is, by definition, frozen in time. Turning an icon back into an engaging character is a tough, strategic undertaking. Figuring out which aspects of the brand are assets and which are liabilities is often surprisingly difficult.

When I think about RadioShack or Betty Crocker or lots of other iconic brands for that matter, it brings to mind something the M&M’s marketing director told me when M&M’s faced this problem in the mid-1990s. “Our brand awareness,” he said, “is a mile wide and half an inch deep.” Everybody was familiar with the brand–and the characters–but nobody cared. In advertising, the characters begged people to love the brand by telling them that the product was delicious, candy-coated chocolate. No conflict, no story, just product attributes that the audience already knew, rendered forgettable by fifty years of broadcasting the same information. When a new agency took over the account in 1995 and introduced serious storytelling (as evidenced by the conflict in almost every frame), it was like rain on a drought-starved field. Within three years the characters had eclipsed Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse in Q-Score ratings, and the topline had grown from around $500 million to over $750 million.

A decade ago, Old Spice was another poster child for iconic brands frozen in time. Even though Old Spice was the clear category leader, it was dragging its iconic status behind it like an anchor: everybody’s grandfather’s aftershave. Every aspect of the branding felt iconic–and tired: the scrimshaw bottle, the sailing ship, the old-fashioned logo, even the word old itself. In the end, the introduction of an effective challenger with a compelling offer–Axe, selling sex in a can to 14-year-old boys–forced Old Spice to rediscover its own story. Once the brand understood that its story was about experience (as in, “experience makes the man”), it was easy to see how each of the iconic elements of the brand could be used to help make that story clearer and more compelling.

A lot of valuable brand assets get marginalized when marketers misunderstand story. In the case of M&M’s, when the new agency creatives first pitched the account, they ignored the characters altogether. Only at the insistence of M&M’s head of marketing (the now-CEO, Paul Michaels) did the agency turned its prodigious storytelling skills to exploiting the iconic status of the characters. And Old Spice was in the process of trashing all the most iconic elements of its brand because the brand team was confusing cultural currency with relevance (“What kid aspires to ride around on a schooner?”).

Which brings me back to RadioShack. Without a firm handle on its story, RadioShack will continue to fail at reengaging its audience. Like Old Spice a decade ago, RadioShack is iconic because, during the years when it was building its near-universal awareness, the brand meant something that was deeply relevant to its audience. Articulating that meaning and consciously using it as an organizing principle for everything you do is the essence of story strategy and the best medicine for reviving a fading icon.

“Character gets to the heart of what good storytelling is all about. They’ve helped Wendy’s focus on what makes us unique, different and special and that’s helped us to get people’s attention, keep their interest and keep the business growing. We compete with much larger brands, but by being overt about how we want to attack those differences, we’ve been able to have a lot of tension and conflict in the story that we are telling. That allows us to keep the story fresh and to fuel it. The more we do that the more positive attention we get as a brand and the more the brand continues to grow, which, in turn, builds our confidence in our storytelling and keeps the courage level high.”

—Kurt  Kane, President U.S. & Chief Commercial Officer, Wendy’s Corporation

“I’ve been through Character’s story framework process four times in my career, and it has always added extraordinary value. It was a central piece of Walmart’s rebranding effort in 2006, as we sought a new articulation of our brand narrative and our purpose. It’s an equally powerful tool for us now, as Walmart defines its place in a rapidly transforming retail environment. And we are currently using it to do the same for Sam’s Club.”

—Tony Rogers, Chief Marketing Officer, Walmart

“Since articulating our story framework, Gallo has had its best year. We’re up 10% and we’re outpacing the category. From a creative standpoint it’s been great because we’re all in alignment. Now that we have the articulation of our story, our social media, our partnerships, our programs, our packaging—it all makes sense.”

—Stephanie Gallo, Chief Marketing Officer, E&J Gallo Winery