Slaughtering sacred cows


Is it time for the slaughterhouse?
Is it time for the slaughterhouse?

We marketers are often faced with a quandary.  The client hires us to overhaul the company’s brand, then warn us, “But you can’t touch that!”

“That” can mean anything.  In some cases it’s the logo colors (unchanged since 1945), or where, exactly, the photo of the mascot dog goes on the label, or what we can say about Grandpa, the company’s founder.  In short, we call these “sacred cows”.   Like those fabled beasts of India, they walk along with impunity, daring anyone to run over them.

Yet as marketing consultants, our job should involve doing just that.   In fact, marketing firms should be veritable slaughterhouses.

We don’t do it to exert power over frightened clients:  to show them who’s the real boss.  It’s not about gratuitous change.  Change for change’s sake is rarely a good strategy.

We do it because sacred cows come with a lot of baggage:  stuff  that can weigh down a brand in today’s fickle market, rendering  it unmovable, a victim of irrelevance.   The key is leaning the difference between luggage and wings.  One holds you hostage while the other lets you fly.

In fact, Trendwatching tells us in a recent report how established brands are coming back from irrelevance with…irreverence.   That’s the  ability to laugh at oneself and to let others in on the “joke”;  to place that sacred brand somewhere no one expected; in short:  to do the unthinkable.

There’s an acid test for identifying sacred cows.  Complete the following sentences, and then think about what might happen if you did exactly the opposite of each statement.

“Our brand must ALWAYS ____________________”

“Our brand must NEVER _____________________”

In fact, consider what’s the worse that can happen… That may just be the best thing for your brand!

One example of aggressive slaughtering is the venerable French Champagne brand Moët.  Previously, it was only available at tony bars and high-end liquor stores.  Recently, though, they introduced it in tiny bottles in (gasp!) self-serving coolers…at department stores.

This is an example of “massification”, or making an elite brand mainstream.  They didn’t just change the product format, they changed the entire distribution channel.  Quelle courage!

Another example came from FlyDubai, an all-economy-class carrier representing a country where the roads are paved with gold, or at least good imitations thereof.   Problem was,  the brand didn’t quite appeal to the Arab princes.  It lacked the cachet to match their exploding, luxury-image country.

So they did the opposite of Moët: they upgraded the brand by creating a business class with attendant top-tier services, positioning the airlines as classy and elite.  Sales took off.

Another example involved a gentle repositioning with powerful ramifications involved giant sacred cow Marriott (at least we all know that one!)  The recession and downtrend in sales prompted them to take a new, hard look at the business they were in.

They saw the writing in the wall about cut corporate travel budgets and mobile workforces.  They saw the competition was a “sea of sameness”.

The company was then motivated to root down to the basics, and realized they were really in the business of…(drumroll)…selling space.  So they started doing just that:  selling desk spaces by the day for business people to work from, whether or not they were actually sleeping there, repositioning this “brand extension” as Great Workplaces at Marriott.

We have three good examples of companies who dared to rebrand using mainstreaming, upgrading and differentiation strategies, all slaughtering their sacred cows .

In closing, a caveat:  not all brands should be sent to the slaughterhouse.  There are indeed those with a heritage that has stood the test of time.  You can tell if the brand should be left alone (for now) if sales are steady or rising.

But then again, consider physics:  what goes up, must come down.

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