Editor's note: This article is part of a series exploring the characteristics of brand admiration, including why it matters and how B2B and B2C businesses can benefit from investing it. To find out more about what brand admiration is, read the first article.
There was a time—before Amazon became Amazon—when Sears was one of the world's most revered retail brands. In fact, when my wife and I bought our first house in 2004, I remember my parents reacted incredulously to the suggestion that we'd buy appliances from any store other than Sears. To them, Sears was the definition of service and reliability, which meant that buying from anyone else was foolhardy.
That perspective makes sense when you consider the historical context. When my parents were growing up, Sears had earned that reputation. Its in-store service was legendary, and its treatment of customers, employees, and stakeholders was unmatched.
By 2004, however, the brand's actual reputation didn't at all resemble my parents' perception of it. And today, Sears's bottom line is suffering the consequences. In the second quarter of 2016, in-store sales fell $310 million and the company's market share fell to half of what it was 20 years ago.
So, what went wrong?
A Playbook for the Destruction of a Brand
It's hard to distill Sears' collapse down to a few simple screw-ups.
Some of the brand's failure is the result of massive changes in the competitive landscape (Amazon...), and some of it can be attributed to radically different consumer behavior. Furthermore, it's not like Sears is the only large—and formerly revered—brick-and-mortar retailer to fall on hard times. Just ask RadioShack or Blockbuster.
Still, a cursory evaluation of the factors contributing to those brands' decline or demise reveals two clear (and, frankly, avoidable) trends.
1. Ignoring evolving technology and customer expectations
Remember when Netflix was viewed as little more than a scrappy pain in Blockbuster's neck? Or when Blockbuster flat out rejected an offer from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings to forge an offline/online partnership in 2000? Almost 20 years later, Netflix has a market cap of $50+ billion and Blockbuster is dead.
We all know how that story played out, but there's one key lesson that brands can take away from it: When customers and technology are very clearly moving toward a future state that opposes the value you currently offer, you'd better respond—and quickly. A lot of factors contributed to Blockbuster's failure, but the brand's stubbornness in the face of change was one of the biggest reasons it imploded in spectacular fashion.
2. Growth at the expense of core value
For years, Sears was known as the place to find the best products and receive the best service. In fact, for much of the 20th century, its Kenmore and Craftsman brands were ranked among the most trusted and reliable in the world. Furthermore, until the 1990s, many of the products and services Sears sold came with lifetime warranties, and, when my parents were shopping there, most Sears employees were recognized as trusted in-store advisers.
Today, Sears isn't associated with any of those attributes... and that's largely the result of a brand that lost its soul in search of profits. As Sears fell in love with growth, it did so at the expense of its core business. It lost focus on why people trusted, loved, and respected the Sears brand (quality products and reliable services), all at a time when its market had access to far more alternatives than ever before.
That combination turned Sears into little more than a commoditized chain that lacked any compelling differentiation.
Strengthening Brand Admiration: Three Questions for Creating Lasting Value
What might Sears have done differently? According to a new book titled Brand Admiration: Building a Business People Love by branding experts C. Whan Park, Deborah MacInnis, and Andreas Eisingerich, Sears should have asked itself the following three questions:
- Is our brand providing benefits that enrich, enable, and enhance people's lives? If Blockbuster or RadioShack had asked this question years before their respective collapses, they might have beaten their competitors to the punch. Ultimately, this process starts and ends with taking the steps that are necessary to truly understand who your customers are, what they care about, and where they want to go.
- Are the benefits we offer the ones customers truly want? When most companies think about "innovation," they approach it from the perspective of creating new features or functionality. But what if new bells and whistles in fact hurt the usability of the product? Innovation must enhance, enable, or enrich the customer experience and the value someone derives from your brand. If it doesn't, it's not innovation—it's unnecessary complication.
- Can people get the value-enhancing benefits that we offer somewhere else? If they can, does that alternative also offer anything else that you don't? If the answer is yes, your brand is in a heap of trouble. Ultimately, your goal should be to ensure that the sum of your brand's value-creating benefits—whether they entice, enrich, or enable the customer—are far greater than what your competitors can offer.
So, how does your brand stack up?
At a high level, brand admiration is achieved when your business becomes part of who people are (think "Mac people") and what they stand for. That kind of relationship isn't accidental or the result of good fortune. Rather, it hinges on three key pillars: trust, love, and respect.
Trust is achieved when a brand helps its admirers feel empowered, in-control, confident, or relieved of a particular pain point. Love is fostered when a brand stimulates senses of warmth, gratitude, nostalgia, and empathy. And respect is earned when a brand's beliefs, principles, hopes, and vision are in harmonious alignment with the people it serves.
As I hope this article has shown, none of those pillars is permanent. For brand admiration to continue in perpetuity, your company must commit to methodically and strategically enhancing the core benefits that attracted people to it in the first place.
Doing so takes diligence and foresight. And as businesses like Sears and Blockbuster have proven, failing to do so can be the difference between long-term success and a truly spectacular flameout.
Articles in this series:
- Brand Admiration: Why Some Brands Are Loved Unconditionally (and What You Can Learn From Them)
- Brand Admiration and the Power of Love: Build a Brand That People Adore
- Is Your Brand Trusted? Here's What Happens When It Is—and Isn't
- Brand Admiration and the Value of Respect: How to Build a Revered Brand
- Brand Admiration: Three Powerful Bottom-Line Benefits of Being Admired
- The Saving Grace of Brand Admiration: 3 Companies, 3 Mistakes, 3 Different Outcomes
- The 3 E's of Brand Admiration (and How Marketers Can Foster Them)
- Brand Admiration Is Earned, Not Given: Here's How to Make It Last Forever