“It seemed like a good idea at the time…”

We’re constantly reminded that effective branding is about making strategic choices.  But how do organizations stay on-brand yet avoid the pitfalls of being rigidly dogmatic?  Perhaps it’s more correct to be in-brand instead of on-brand. After all, strong brands aren’t fixed points but, rather, a broad space with firm boundaries.  Within the space you have relative freedom of movement; the parameters are there to rein in misguided actions.

The trick is establishing appropriate boundaries.  Doing so requires more discipline than drama, more research than revolutionary thinking.  Staying in-brand requires knowing, and continually assessing, where you’ve been and using this information when deciding what to do next.    Procter & Gamble has figured this out, but what do recent decisions at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, or at book reviewer Kirkus, say about their respective branding processes?

With the National Hockey League lockout knocking its flagship program, Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC), off the air, CBC coffers will be depleted.  To placate audiences (and advertisers), they’ve decided to air old movies.  Is the right choice this inexpensive alternative that will protect as much revenue as possible?

What the CBC is supposed to do is bring our diverse and disparate nation together. Programming like The National and HNIC are very good at reaching into our various communities and sending the message that the CBC represents everyone, not just the country’s large urban centers.  These are programs that generate tremendous goodwill and help CBC achieve its brand promise.

So are they now making the best of a tough situation? True, the experiment of rebroadcasting “classic” hockey games during the 1994 lockout was a revenue failure.  But good branding is as much about corporate responsibility as fiscal responsibility, and sometimes organizations have to tolerate moves whose impact is hard to measure.

Brand building requires consistency, reliability, and perseverence. Instead of jettisoning their decade-old experiment they missed an opportunity to fine-tune it, to extend its HNIC message “It’s our game” through broadcasting junior or senior hockey.

In the New York Times (“Stick it to the NHL,” 20 Sept 04), Dave Bidini wrote pointedly that “Fans understand that NHL hockey, and what many of us consider hockey, are two entirely different things.  The members of the NHL Politburo might think they’re ending our beloved sport by pulling the plug, but in many ways, they’re providing welcome relief.”

The CBC seems to miss this.  They should be tapping into this sentiment by promoting the grassroots of the game; help Canadians celebrate the Allan Cup this year for a change.  Even broadcasting curling would be a better solution than rerunning old American movies.  If the CBC were to use the HNIC slot for something in-line with its brand promise, it would be rewarded, eventually, for persevering.

Required Reading
Hockey is a tough sport, but book publishing may be tougher. If you’re a reader, you may have seen the name “Kirkus” on a book jacket endorsement. Publishers are eager to promote Kirkus endorsements because, since 1933, their reviews about new books have maintained a ferocious independence and book industry buyers rely upon their insights  to make purchasing decisions.  In a world of hype, their credible and reliable pronouncements are a significant source of differentiation.  In keeping with its brand promise, Kirkus won’t contaminate its pages with advertising.

So the book industry is scratching its collective head about Kirkus’ decision to establish two new e-newsletters that appear to blur the line between reviewing and marketing.  In the first, self-published authors will be able to buy a Kirkus review for $350.  In the second, editors will highlight top lifestyle books but, to be included, publishers will have to pay $95 per title. Critics of the decision realize they can’t charge for reviews and provide the unvarnished truth call this “The Kirkus Bribe List,” and condemn the company for compromising its principles.

It’s a bad choice because it takes Kirkus off-brand.  While the company claims future reviews in these two newsletters will remain pure, the negative perception is enough to weaken the entire brand.  Without advertising, Kirkus may need the money, but raising revenues this way is short- sighted if it compromises their credibility and weakens the brand. The Kirkus brand is only valuable if its reputation remains unimpeachable. If the industry deems its opinions to be no longer “reliable,” if they lose their differentiation from everyday newspaper book reviews, will anyone need them?

Required Reading
Changes that take you off-side may have expensive consequences. But if you stray, at least learn from the experience.

A recent book by my Winthrop colleagues about Procter & Gamble (Rising Tide: Lessons from 165 Years of Brand Building at Procter & Gamble, Harvard Business School Press, 2004) doesn’t pretend P&G has always made the right decisions.  But it reveals an organization that knows maintaining the tension inherent in choosing what to hang onto, what to change, and what to let go of is absolutely fundamental to maintaining appropriate brand’s parameters and, over time, to making the right strategic choices.

During the 1960s and early ‘70s, P&G owned the disposable diaper category it helped create.  But problems emerged when innovative new features it developed were put into a separate, higher-priced brand called Luvs.  Pampers became a lower-end line, a move that allowed the upstart Huggies – which quickly replicated the best of Luvs and Pampers in a single product – to gain ground.  Fortunately, reflection and adjustment steered Pampers away from disaster. The event has become a cautionary tale inside the company, taught and studied by employees ever since.

Properly managed, experience is an essential strategic tool.  When organizations let themselves explore their “moments of truth” they learn something important about themselves. In the case of Pampers, P&G realized “competition follows technology, not the brand.”

P&G’s entire story is a series of such defining moments of challenge, change, and learning.  Its culture as a reflective and learning organization prepared to critically analyze new experiments, continually adjust, and preserve their best traditions, emerged with the development of Ivory soap in the 1880s. Ivory taught P&G how to learn and those habits appear in virtually all the company’s most successful ventures – and are generally absent in unhappy outcomes: the consequence of going off-brand.

Although P&G is as likely as any company to suffer from the consequences of a loss of corporate memory, what sets it apart is knowing it needs to be reminded of its past. P&G inquires systematically into its past and propagates its stories because it recognizes that its experience, and establishing a shared knowledge, is a unique source of ongoing learning and corporate advantage…something CBC and Kirkus need to learn.

(Originally posted in Knowledge Marketing Watch, 25 October 2004)

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