Reinventing a brand is a huge challenge. There are times, however, when managers don’t have choice; they have to reinvent their brand if it is to remain relevant

At Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, the branding faculty defines a brand to be a set of associations linked to a name, mark or symbol associated with a product or service. The key word in this definition is associations; a brand is all the connections people make when they see a particular name or symbol. When people see the Dom Perignon, for instance, they generally think about celebration, luxury, expense and special. When they see Apple they think about innovation, technology, style and Steve Jobs. All of the associations are part of the brand.

The associations around a brand can endure for many years. This is one of the reasons why brands are so valuable; they are long lasting assets. Coke is more than 100 years old, Guinness is more than 200 years old and Harvard is more than 300 years old. Brands don’t necessarily fade away; there is no reason why a brand couldn’t continue for 500 years or more. The problem is that the associations built around a brand can be exceptionally difficult to change. Once people form a connection it becomes hard to break it. BMW is closely linked to German engineering and Volvo is linked to safety; it is hard to get people to stop making the connections. The stronger a brand, the harder it can be to evolve it because the associations are so deeply entrenched. It is easy to shift the associations around a new or relatively unknown brand, because few people have deeply held beliefs. It is much harder to change how people think about well established brands like McDonald’s or Sony.

Nonetheless, there are times when reinventing a brand is essential. Changes in technology, for instance, may force a company to evolve its brand to keep up with the latest developments. Competitive moves might also mean that a company has to reinvent its brand to remain unique and relevant in the world.

Reinventing a brand is often called repositioning a brand; the task is the same, changing the associations built around a name or mark, or changing the position in the market. Repositioning is difficult in the best of times but there are two situations that present unique big challenges. First, it is hard to reposition a brand when the core business is struggling. The problem is that repositioning takes time and money. When a business encounters slumping sales, it is difficult to invest in a brand repositioning. Indeed, when business is soft executives often do precisely the opposite thing and cut spending on branding. Weak results can set up a negative spiral, where poor sales lead to cuts in market, which in turn lead to weak sales and further cuts in marketing. Repositioning a brand while caught in this viscous spiral is virtually impossible; the resources are too limited.

Second, it is hard to reposition a brand when it has slipped from the public view. To establish associations, a brand needs a certain amount of visibility; you can’t define a brand if people don’t see it. Brands that slip from the visibility remain static, since there is nothing to change the associations that exist in the market. The brand gradually loses awareness and the brand’s associations or meaning doesn’t change. Oprah Winfrey, one of the world’s strongest brands in the world of entertainment, will likely find this a challenge in the coming years. When she had her daily talk show, Oprah could continuously enhance and refine her brand because she had enormous visibility; she was on television every day, speaking directly to millions of people. Now that she has ended her daily show she will be less visible, and this will make it harder for her to reposition her brand.

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Source : IIPM Editorial, 2012

An Initiative of IIPM, Malay Chaudhuri and Arindam chaudhuri (Renowned Management Guru and Economist).

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