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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.

“For B2B businesses, Character is a powerful tool. I have used Character three times in my leader marketing roles, 2x were in B2B businesses. The Character work was the foundation of a transformation in product innovation/commercialization, rebranding, M&A, sales growth, and employee engagement. Character’s work helped us take dead brands and make them relevant again and helped us establish lesser-known brands with high share in a B2B market. What’s so unique is that you don’t create something that the ‘marketing talking heads’ think the company needs, you use the history, culture and DNA that is already part of the company to bring out the true story that is unique to only your brand. The Character team is so special, genuine, and has the perfect mix of creative and business knowledge to lead cross-functional executives through this process. ”
—Melissa Minihan, Head of Digital Commerce & Marketing, Veritiv Corporation

“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

“Character’s approach to brand building is unlike any other in the business. Jim and his team use the timeless truths of human storytelling to unlock story potential and connect deeply with brand audiences. I’ve worked with Character throughout my career, and my experience with Tabasco was as fascinating, inspiring, and productive as ever. 

Character worked with our team not only to help us re-examine and re-articulate the elemental truths of our iconic global brand but also to develop and apply practical tools that make the brand story framework user-friendly for our entire organization. 

I whole-heartedly recommend Character to any brand marketer who is looking to make intuitive and durable connections with their consumer.”

Lee Susen, Chief Sales & Marketing Officer, Tabasco / McIlhenny Company