Stop tinkering your brand to death

Some companies frantically reinvent themselves at any sign of trouble, but the cure is usually worse than the disease

 
Ad for McDonald’s Pizza
The McPizza debacle of the ’90s was an early example of McDonald’s grasping for a new market instead of maintaining its focus. (McDonald’s)

No matter how grumpily “world class” Toronto becomes, it relies on certain constants to keep its emotional keel in the water. One of those is that the Maple Leafs will sell out every game. It’s like gravity for the city, an inevitability that vouches the universe is unfolding as it should. So you can imagine the consternation one otherwise ordinary day last March when it didn’t happen. For the first time in 13 years, the floundering team failed to sell out the arena, by hundreds of seats. By the time the puck dropped, you could buy one for an apocalyptic $29. But as unsettling as it was, anybody with any sense had to wonder what had taken so long.

Despite knowing nothing about hockey, I’ve always found the Leafs’ travails fascinating. In the 48 years since they last won a Stanley Cup, no part of the Leafs’ product has escaped remedial tinkering, including who owns them, where they play and what they wear. Nothing has remained constant, and yet nothing has altered their trajectory. In fact, the only consistent theme in all those years (aside from failure) has been change itself. Which ought to make you wonder if that’s the problem—whether maybe all this club ever really lacked was conviction. And while I may not be a citizen of Leafs Nation, I know a useful metaphor when I see one.

In the marketing world these days, the poster kid for lacking conviction is surely McDonald’s. In Canada, its struggle to stay relevant goes back at least as far as the McPizza debacle of the 1990s, with countless menu and branding changes since then, aimed at taking on every enemy—real or imagined—from Tim Hortons to Chipotle. But McDonald’s is not alone. Cadillac rebooted its image for the umpteenth time at this year’s Oscars, with a refreshed logo and an elegiac tribute to entrepreneurs that felt about as authentic as the Catera duck. Even the marketing Vulcans of Silicon Valley have their moments of uncertainty (which they call “pivoting”). Take Foursquare, for instance: If you didn’t know, let me be the first to tell you that it’s no longer a social networking app. Poof! It’s now a local search and recommendation app.

Bold as it can seem, radical change is medicine that often turns out to be worse than the disease. That’s because it’s a shrieking confession of self-doubt, a mortal sin for brands. Advanced by leaders blinded by either ego or panic, wholesale disruptions diminish familiarity and goodwill, and undermine systems—the things that take a company the most time and money to build. Meanwhile, internally, unless the culture is already fatally toxic, abandoning a company’s founding principles doesn’t inspire people. It just confirms their worst fears.

When a business with history struggles, not enough marketers start by asking what should be undone rather than done. That’s certainly what Starbucks did, in its historic turnaround a few years ago. In his famous 2007 Valentine’s Day memo to the company, CEO Howard Schultz described “a series of decisions that, in retrospect, have led to the watering down of the Starbucks experience.” The company would go on to reverse a terrifying share decline and hit new heights, not by “innovating” a new experience as an apology for the old one but by returning to its core values. It’s an idea McDonald’s would do well to consider. As one former executive recently told the New York Times, “The problem is not that consumers don’t want hamburgers…. What they’re waiting for is a better hamburger from McDonald’s, not a wrap.”

A better hamburger is almost always the answer. When a brand turns its back on the ideas that built its business, it’s not really raising its game. It’s choosing a new game, and most of the time, that makes the odds of winning even more remote. Former Leafs coach Pat Burns once put it this way: “If we believe we’re beat, then we are beat.” Apparently, after he said this, the Leafs went on to win a division semifinal, whatever that is. I may not know anything about hockey, but I know the moral of a story when I hear one.

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