Leading brands out of decline – they don’t bounce

We often work with marketing directors trying to turn round brands in decline. Often these brands have suffered from several years of falling sales. And its one hell of a job to get them growing again.

Hoping that these brands will “bounce back”, from decline straight back to growth, is in most cases wishful thinking. This is shown by another bit of cartoon genius from Tom Fishburne below.

Brands don't bounce
The harsh reality is leading a brand out of long-term decline is like being the pilot of a plane dive bombing to earth. First you to have to slow the rate of decline to avoid crashing. Then you have to stabilise the brand. Only then can you start to climb again. So, growth tends to be shaped like a “U”, not a “V”.

Here are some hard-learnt brand turn-around lessons.

1. Sick brands suffer from multiple organ failure

Apologies for another metaphor. Sick brands are often really sick. They lack a clear and consistent communication campaign. The pack design may be out of date. The product has often been neglected, or even reduced in quality to cut costs. Marketing spend has been cut. And the brand may be poorly executed in store, owing to lack of support from retailers and the company’s own sales force.

This means that brand rescue requires simultaneous action on all fronts. Fast. You need a total re-launch of the brand.

Screen shot 2010-12-01 at 21.21.31 2. Internal engagement counts for a lot

Just re-establishing internal belief in the brand can be highly effective. I saw this on Cointreau, the orange-based spirit. It had been declining slowly but surely by about 3% a year, for 25 years. 3% doesn’t sound too bad. But over such a long period this ate away half the brand’s sales.

The re-launch plans created for the brand’s communication and packaging took time to get to market. The Global Brand Director, Olivier Charriaud, made the smart move of starting with an internal re-launch. He convinced the sales force that the brand had a future. This is in turn meant the sales team were more confident in promoting the brand to retailers. And this was enough to stabilise the brand and even create growth of 1%. Not much. But progress after a quarter of a century of decline.

3. Manage expectations – down

Most senior managers you work with will expect pretty much immediate results once your re-launch strategy is agreed. If, as is likely, sales don’t respond immediately, they will probably get impatient and start to challenge your strategy. My advice is to paint as dark a picture as possible. Remind them how dire the brand’s situation is (assuming your have been around for a short while!). And explain the need to stabilise the brand, then get it growing. Get them thinking about a “U” not “V” shaped recovery. As a rule of thumb, you could plan for the following (though this depends on how sick the brand is):

– First 6-9 months after re-launch: slower decline

– Second 6-9 months: stability

– 18 months after re-launch: return to growth

Screen shot 2010-12-01 at 21.23.15 4. Remember and refresh what made you famous

Brands in decline have often been successful at some point. Often decline is caused by walking away from this success model. This is why looking back at what made a brand famous can help, both in terms of positioning and marketing mix. The trick is then to refresh these attributes and brand properties to bring them up to date. A good example is Mars in the UK refreshing the “Work, Rest and Play” slogan that worked so well back in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

In conclusion, turning round brands in decline is tough. Be ready for a long, hard slog. Manage expectation to plan for a “U” not a “V” shaped recovery. And when you do re-launch, make it a total re-launch, covering product, pack, communication and engagement.