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Marketers and brand managers are responsible for building brands. Their success is often measured by an ability to develop forward motion, or “momentum.” for the brand.

Momentum can help deliver high brand-awareness scores among target customers. It can also bring about positive publicity that supports paid marketing efforts.

Yet, few brand managers are trained to understand the behavior or physics of momentum. There is a widespread belief that momentum is always a positive and desirable state. There is also a belief that once the brand is in motion, it will stay in motion. Neither notion is true.

Momentum is a force. And as a force, it will produce competitive advantage if it is managed. If it is not managed, it will inevitably lead to brand dilution.

What Wal-Mart and Howard Dean Have in Common

Wal-Mart is the darling of Middle America. Its low prices and one-stop-shopping approach have made it the world's largest company. But lately, as it has tried to maintain its growth rates, Wal-Mart has increasingly been forced to expand into urban settings.

In urban America, Wal-Mart faces organized labor, which is opposed to its non-union workforce. It also faces community advocates who complain about its low wage scale.

Customers ultimately determine when a brand's momentum is positive and when it is negative. In Middle America, Wal-Mart's brand and operating model are closely aligned with local customs. In urban America, Wal-Mart has faced a misalignment with some segments of the community.

Brand momentum is affected positively in the Middle-American setting, but negatively in the urban setting.

Similarly, as Howard Dean built his political brand last fall, he enjoyed an explosive burst of momentum that made his candidacy look unstoppable—that is, until he fumbled in his attempt to take leadership beyond his core antiwar supporter base. He failed to manage his brand's momentum.

While three decades of momentum propelled Wal-Mart to leadership in retailing and did the same for Howard Dean in three months, both learned that momentum's blessings also come with three curses.

The Three Curses of Momentum

  1. The curse of increased expectations. You must keep growing or going or winning or getting better. If you don't meet such heightened expectations, you appear to be moving backward. Losing momentum is tantamount to decline, even if you are making progress. Opening one new store this week is progress, but it is a failure if you are expected to open three stores each week.

  2. The curse of amplification. The greater your momentum, the more attention is focused on you and the “louder” your brand becomes. Small victories become perceived as large (e.g., all of Howard Dean's endorsements), and small losses become perceived as large (e.g., Wal-Mart losing the referendum in Inglewood, CA).

    Positive events such as new store openings and revenue growth become big news reinforcing the positive momentum news for a company such as Wal-Mart. However, negative events also become big news, because they seem to contradict the perception of invincibility of brands on a great rise.

  3. The curse of overextension. Brands are great because they skillfully fulfill the needs of their primary target customers. They are designed to appeal to these customers' needs, behaviors and sentiments.

    However, momentum eventually forces brands to extend beyond their core customer base. This situation sets the stage for their failure to meet expectations due to a misalignment of the brand promise with expectations of the expanded customer base. Failure to maintain momentum due to a misalignment with a new customer segment can kill a political candidacy—or drain a company's quarterly profits.

Key Characteristics of Momentum

While the three curses define the potential risks, there are some characteristics that are equally crucial to understanding how momentum works.

First, customers are the ones who own your momentum. Just as you do not own your brand, you cannot own your brand momentum, because it lives in the minds of your customers.

You can, however, monitor what your customers perceive about your brand's momentum and use those insights to influence it. You do this by using internal momentum controls such as the intensity and placement of advertising, the sponsorship of events, the decision to leverage the reputation of specific endorsers, the selection of your channel partners, adding new features or benefits to your products and services, adjusting pricing, introducing loyalty programs and improving your customer service.

Second, you should note that momentum occurs in bursts. It is not a steady, predictable force. It often erupts when internal momentum controls and external forces converge. External forces include the evolving state of your competition and the quality of their offerings, word-of-mouth, switching costs, occasions for purchasing, customer satisfaction, trends and the opportunities to purchase.

Third, many forces that determine your brand's momentum are simply beyond your control. Marketplace trends and fads, or new regulations, can serve to amplify your brand's market potential or move the market decidedly away from your product positioning.

The successful brand manager will monitor these external forces and attempt to use internal controls to maximize the benefit or limit the damage to the brand's momentum.

Momentum Management

Great brands are the beneficiaries of planned and managed momentum. Effectively managing your brand's momentum over the long term requires both stimulating and occasionally inhibiting its growth.

It may be counterintuitive, but there are even times when you might rein in the brand's momentum by leveraging internal momentum controls. Think about the negative impact on your brand if you couldn't fulfill overwhelming demand for your products generated by unmanaged momentum.

But, most often, brand and marketing managers will be focused on creating circumstances that will create bursts of momentum that will drive brand image, sales volume and profits. You can direct the momentum of your brand by better aligning it with the evolving needs of your target customers, by recognizing and evaluating the influence of external forces and by leveraging internal management controls.

And, you can continue to benefit by deftly navigating the dangers posed by the three curses of brand momentum.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joseph Benson and Bret Kinsella Joseph (benson.consulting@rcn.com) is a brand strategist with over 25 years of experience designing and implementing brand and marketing strategies for financial services, healthcare, high technology, entertainment and retail clients. Bret (bkinsella@sapient.com) is a director and general manager of Sapient’s Supply Chain Service Line.