The Thin Line between Being Loved and Being Loathed
The ascent to brand success is an interesting ride. The upward path to growth is usually accompanied by a charismatic leader, superbly different product, strong financial performance and by newsworthiness and buzz.
For brands experiencing this dizzy stage of life—think Wii, Hyundai, facebook—the picture looks pretty rosy. That elusive element called “momentum” has been achieved. The brand becomes more and more talked about and in turn, it becomes more and more confident. In this purple patch, which can last anywhere from months to decades, the brand progressively begins to assume an invincibility. Strange things begin to happen that are completely out of character—such as a disappointing new product, a messy recall, a few arrogant or clumsy statements from the company, or bad buzz on facebook. And just as the good news snowballed, so the not-so-good news begins to stick and accumulate.
During these tremors, the advocates for the brand remain defiantly loyal, while excusing the company these missteps. But the advocates are just the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface, unseen and starting with the less loyal, brand dissatisfaction begins to mount and what starts as a trickle builds to a steady stream of doubters and in turn deserters. Inside the company, the metrics begin to reflect the changed customer behavior, either through less robust growth, a dip in consumer affinity or a market share ‘anomaly’.
Three recent examples serve to illustrate this pattern and all three make us realize how close the line is between brand ascent and brand descent:
- First, an historical example. Wal-Mart faced this challenge some 5 years ago and, despite obvious signs and signals, remained in denial for some time. Their impressive and courageous response has resulted in them restoring their prowess but, for a while, it didn’t look pretty.
- Second a current example. Johnson & Johnson is right in the eye of this storm. The company has, over the years, built and enjoyed a superb reputation but these are worrying times as product recalls and questionable trading practices erode that hard-earned goodwill. It just can’t seem to stop shooting itself in the corporate foot.
- And last, a future example…maybe. Apple could be about to enter the “loved to loathed” zone. Their incredible success, their closed systems, their apparent arrogance, the Android threat, some disregard for consumer complaints are all bubbling away and point towards a problem beginning to form. But I do stress, beginning to form.
All this tells me that achieving “loved’ status as a brand is only the beginning of the challenge. The bigger task is to maintain and sustain this love. It is also clear to me that with so little consumer trust and respect for corporations, it can take only a couple of relatively harmless missteps to fall out of favor and into the dreaded ‘loathed’ category. And just as a airline pilot uses a different checklist for take-off from cruise control, so brands must realize that growth is only the critical first step to success. Managing and maintaining that success in an intensely competitive world with consumers armed and ready with social media to keep you honest is the even more critical second step. In the meantime, to all those brands enjoying success, please post a lookout as the line between love and loath grows thin.