Changing customer perception. A bad brand perception

Changing customer perception. No doubt change is hard. Humans resist change until they have to. Like a smoking or another indulgent vice, you won’t kick it until it threatens your very existence. So it is with changing your bad brand perception, in the minds of your customers.

Humans can’t form new brand perceptions without replacing a previous experience. “That dog bit me, it will bite me again!” Brands take on the form of what they have proven themselves to be. Perceptions formed, hardened and fixed by experience, an association of good or bad. If consumer’s mind is made up about a brand, it’s incredibly difficult sometimes impossible to change it.

Marketers setting off on the journey of bad brand transformation must recognise it’s an inside-out, soul-searching, deep and honest metamorphosis. It’s not for the wallflowers, the wusses or the lightweights.

Bad or weakly perceived brand owners and senior management are the first to resist change. Even when it plain to see from the outside in. It can take years of sliding sales, failed ‘prop up’ marketing initiatives and value decline before bad brand owners and leadership teams wake up and deal honestly and objectively with the issues at hand. This is especially true of iconic brands, that once were leaders but are now left in the wake of the new startups. The new business models, disrupting market leaders beacause they have got their product market fit right.

During commissions, I often witness a total sense of complacency that freezes organisational action. Long before the cash starts drying up, iconic brands lose relevancy and customers. They become a bad brand. Granted it’s sometimes hard to see this happening in real time, especially when there are variable trading conditions. The dynamics of organisational thinking tend to favour the status quo; the song remains the same. Hey-ho. Perceptions only change through a new experience. Consumers experiencing new advertising (if they are even listening or care) can never be a substitute for experiencing new and more zeitgeist relevant brand.

If you want to change your bad brand perception properly with a genuine zeal and convincing zest, the process begins by changing from deep within. For many bad brand owners and senior management teams, the default reaction is to hit the big red emergency button which:

A. Brings a new agency on board (after all, the previous agency was to blame for your failings… right?)
B. Churns out a new logo (We’ve changed the font! That’s it lads, phone the bank, we’re gonna be rich!)
C. Develops a brand new ad campaign (Put some sexy women on it and tell ’em we’re cheaper… That’s gotta do the trick!)
D. Rushes out some social media posts to clog our newsfeeds (Are kittens still relevant? Dammit Jim, kittens are always relevant, and this one’s got a hat on!)

The truth is, this simply won’t work. It falsely raises the expectation of change and delivers nothing back but frustration, negativity and giggles at your expense. Think Rover 100. We all knew it was a rebadged 15-year-old Mini Metro with a rubbish grill.

Meaningful change first requires honest internal assessment and deep and uncomfortable introspection. This is the only to uncover the truths that matter. This is very difficult for busy marketing teams to do these days – especially when their performance is reviewed on a short-term quarterly basis. The temptation is to offer up a quick fix to prove that you’re doing your job, without fully understanding the issue.

The first question that requires a robust answer is “What must we change within our organisation that will enable us to create value again, so our customers will care?”

Brand teams bury themselves in the urgent work (running the business and being busy), following technical design guidelines, patching up, producing more and more irrelevant collateral, rather than stopping, taking stock and creating new value that represents a better long-term future for the entire organisation.

You can’t begin the journey of changing bad and weak outside perceptions without internal clarity, togetherness and a consensus of WHY your brand exists. What is it’s purpose? Where does the passion lie? If your brand were gone tomorrow, would anybody give a stuff? Would it be mourned in its passing?

Changing customer perception. There are only two practical options to think about

Assuming your brand team has the necessary internal clarity in the first instance, there are only two strategic options available:

1)    Continue to invest in the current gone bad brand
2)    Invent a whole new brand from scratch

There are pros and cons associated with both options, but both will require lots of time, hard work and money.

One. Invest in your current brand

If the top-down decision is to continue to invest and turn your under-performing brand around, one thing must be understood… “What got you here won’t get you there, kids!”

The route to success in this instance, is how willing and successful you are in helping consumers “unlearn” the negative associations they have with the current brand before embedding new associations and creating more relevant experiences. If the cake is rotten, new icing is not going to make a difference. Neither is new packaging for mouldy chocolates.

Heritage brands have all the awareness you could want, but can have little relevance with a new generation of consumers. They are very difficult, but not impossible to change. Managers of iconic brands are inclined to feel boxed in by the heritage that the brand represents in people’s minds; there are many noble exceptions who have gone it right, AGA, Hunters, Barbour, Wellingtons, Rolls Royce and Bentley are ones that spring to mind.

The danger on this journy is that it’s easy to smudge, distort and convolute your brand’s identity and value proposition by attempting to stretch its meaning and value to new consumer. This only serves to alienate your existing audiences.

Burberry has become immensely popular as a uniform for terrace football hooligans, for instance. But, their brand is immensely popular in China where it is seen as an aspirational British fashion icon.

Starbucks is a good example of how the customer perception of an under-performing brand can be changed. After twenty years of strong expansion, the very essence that made the brand great was contributing to its ultimate demise. The brand also faced growing threats from unlikely competitors such as McDonalds who were on a change march themselves, due to the changing attitude towards junk food and ‘fat kid’ brand perceptions. Starbucks raised it’s game by changing nearly every aspect of its customer experience from the inside out. And they didn’t stop there; They conducted a total operational overhaul behind the scenes, so all of their staff members were invested in the success of the new model brand. Today Starbucks is enjoying the fruits of its leadership position once again. There can be no doubt though, it was a very expensive journey!

Check out our own client examples –  EXCEL for example!

Changing customer perception
Two. Invent a completely new brand

Sometimes, inventing a new brand from the ground up may be a more sensible option than attempting to change hideous bad brand perceptions. This is true if the brand’s positioning, heritage or negativity has boxed itself into a market segment that has no sensible purpose or future.

Changing customer perception. If you can clearly see that the current brand associations by consumers are too strong, inventing a new brand may be the only sensible choice. Black & Decker, for example, faced this hefty conundrum. The market for consumer power tools began to get much more competitive and Black & Decker leadership decided to expand into the trade construction professional market. But the construction professional considered Black & Decker products to be geared toward odd jobs and DIY dads. Not the kind of product that could stand up to prolonged use on a building site, only to be brutally thrown into the back of a transit van at the end of a busy day. No realistic amount of product design or advertising would easily change this negative perception.

To get into this market, Black & Decker invented the DeWalt brand. DeWalt has been a splendid success for Black & Decker – hats off to you, sirs – good decision and good job! One of the benefits of this strategic route was that the Dewalt brand now commands a far higher price point – yay! Certainly, a good percentage of the market doesn’t even realise that Dewalt products are made by Black & Decker (and that’s just fine and dandy with Black and Decker, by the way!). Cue the smug nonchalant whistle, jump and heel kick . . .

Changing customer perception. Another case is Lexus – Toyota’s entrance into the Luxury car market. The LS400 was nicknamed the ‘Japanese Mercedes’ and infact Toyota went totally overboard in the engineering stakes to make sure it was way better than the equivalent S-Class Mercedes, who were laughing at the time, but soon shut up when their engineers drove one. The brand was positioned correctly and delivered the right product. Toyota had the benefit of being widely perceived as the worlds most reliable car manufacturer, so Lexus became a benchmark for development and production quality, against which all other manufacturers are measured by. At least, that is, until Alan Partridge bought one… I bet the brand managers at Lexus UK were weeping into their couscous and feta salads!

So, where the perception gap is way too great, creating a new brand might be the best route. But with positioning changes, pricing changes, changes in product functions, new feature sets that are more relevant to a new target consumer segment, you may just be able to have the best of both worlds. A big cake and a big revenue spoon with which to eat it!

There are simple choices; it has to be based on solid research. Half-heartedness leads to serious disappointment and waste. Changing negative customer perceptions about a brand’s value and relevance can be a risky process if the temptation is to cut corners. The classic being, jumping into a creative tactical execution to show the chairman your have been productive. It needs to be a step by step process, only moving forward when a stage is complete and the brief is satisfied. Sometimes a move forward may flag up issues that mean you have to take 2 steps back in order to fix them. “But that won’t reflect well on my quarterly performance review”, I hear you cry… My point exactly!

I am going to repeat myself here. The process requires the leadership team to be TOTALLY BOUGHT IN. To have a clear purpose and vision. To have the determination to stay the course. This is the only way to fix a bad brand perception. In my experience change WILL happen if all of these factors are considered, and then, my friends, the market and revenue are yours!

Changing customer perception
The measure of success?

Changing customer perception. Your marketing begins to work; there is increasing demand for your reinvented, relevant products and services. Revenue is increasing. You have majority market share and can enjoy a higher price point. The world is a better place!


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