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With all of the possible approaches to building brand strategy, how do you know where to start? This article shows how using the Brand Life-Cycle Assessment can quickly focus your efforts on the most important challenges. It's an effective system for quickly profiling a brand and narrowing the discovery and research options to what should most immediately and positively affect your business.

Like living things, brands and businesses pass through life cycles. Marketing approaches that worked well when a company was in its growth phase may not be appropriate later in its life. And sometimes, mature companies need a fresh start to regain competitiveness.

Brands go through four stages—new, growth, mature, and revival—that quickly isolate their key business challenges. These stages, in turn, dictate their unique marketing needs. Each brand stage has different definitions of success and should be treated differently.

1. New Brands (Create)

Launching a brand is a key milestone. Months of planning, strategizing, and investing will have transformed a series of usually well-worn PowerPoint slides into a tangible entity that will exist in the real world.

In the early stages of brand launch, the question that you continually hear is simply, "What is it?" This question isn't asked just by customers but also by potential investors, partners, and vendors. How effectively this question is answered dictates whether a brand grows.

Primary Challenge: Differentiation and Targeted Awareness

The answer to the question "What is it?" must clearly differentiate a brand from competitors' offerings. That is the part that everyone knows (or ought to know). Equally as important, the answer should be relevant, specifically to early adopters. After all, if a brand isn't differentiated in an appealing way to those interested in trying something new, it won't find a market entry point, no matter how unique it is.

By narrowing focus to seeding early adopters with the story of a brand/product's unique difference, resources available for research can focus on getting key answers to a few key questions asked of a tightly targeted group. Any research invested otherwise is an indulgence: nice to know, but not immediately actionable.

Example: TOMS Shoes

Upstart TOMS not only entered a mature market that's heavily competitive but also hoped to compete against the likes of Converse, Nike, adidas, and Puma—some of the most sophisticated and well-funded marketers in the world—for their core customers.

TOMS certainly couldn't compete on cost, quality, or even design to lure a significant portion of these entrenched competitors' customers away. It had to create a singular point of differentiation so unique and so viral that it would not need the infrastructure or marketing budgets of its giant competitors.

The solution was simple and notably derived from a genuine desire to make the world a better place. It was this offer: "With every pair you purchase, TOMS will give a pair of new shoes to a child in need. One for One."

That simple statement at every consumer touch point became so viral that the brand association among young and sophisticated consumers became akin to trading in a Range Rover for a Prius—a visible billboard of one's social convictions.

Distinct, simple, and viral differentiation created the potential for the explosive growth of TOMS. But most significant, it was the relevance to an early-adopter audience that catapulted the brand past the new, startup phase and into the growth phase.

2. Growth Brands (Build)

After a brand is created, it begins growing among niche consumer groups, presenting the first opportunity to begin using brand reputation. It also presents long-term risks in the guise of lucrative short-term opportunities.

Owners of hot, new brands commonly mistake their rabid and vocal fan base support as something long term that will carry their brands into the mainstream. That is only true when it is carefully managed.

One of the key attributes of early adopters is their love of novelty and penchant for enthusiastically endorsing the next new thing—and dropping the last new thing.

It's critical, in this phase, to strategically shift to a simple brand message, using the short-term support of early adopters. That can help catapult a brand into mainstream consumer awareness, and become established with a mass audience, without alienating early adopters (i.e., before its novelty fades among those early adopters.)

Primary Challenge: Transitioning From Early Adopters to Mass Market Without Alienating Core Fans

A classic example is the fan reaction to a book that's been optioned for the screen. Reading blog posts of the book's core fans and listening to them worry prior to the movie's release demonstrates this challenge. They fret over every decision, from casting to creature effects, concerned that the studio executives will lose the magic of the book by making a movie of it. Ironically, they will be the first in line on opening night, dressed as Batman or Harry Potter, and tweeting their reviews seconds after exiting the theater.

Core fans are the strongest advocates of a brand as it transitions to mass market. However, by their very nature, they'll eventually abandon it because they identify themselves as "discoverers of the new." During this fleeting period, it's critical that a brand's core values be simplified, codified, and established as sacred; otherwise, its core advocates will not imprint their essential endorsement on the brand's mass-market entry. That is what will separate a brand from a fad.

To see that transition done properly, look at the Harry Potter films. Their marketing and product lines, with their consistent but constantly updated brand standards, manage a worldwide franchise with complete authenticity. Or, listen to albums from The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, which were always updated to their time of release but adhered to an aesthetic point of view. Another example is Method soaps, a brand that still delivers what was advertised before its product became a big-box store staple.

The chief challenge in the growth stage is to achieve clarity of brand standards, messaging, tone of voice, philosophical stance, and values.

3. Mature Brands (Leverage)

When a brand has become a household name, marketing has become a core internal function. The brand's key attributes are likely well known both within and outside the company or brand.

At this stage, growth becomes difficult to maintain because the sheer weight of the brand's size and awareness makes it challenging to constantly refresh. Accordingly, senior management seeks new ways to increase brand relevance among changing demographics and to find new revenue streams.

Continuing growth with world-straddling brands requires not only maintaining relevance with the core audience but also constantly expanding into new taste-maker niches, markets, and brand extensions. That process forces a brand to become more diverse in execution and often softens a brand's positioning, unless it is carefully managed.

Brands risk not accurately identifying their key differentiation points and skillfully translating those attributes into broader marketing strategies, event spaces, product designs, packaging programs, and in-store signage. The result is often an inevitable decline in brand relevance because what made the brand unique and desirable is missing from products, packaging, or marketing, which the brand's audience interacts with. Consumers will eventually conclude the brand is generic.

That can take years, just as the brand took years to build. Brand managers may eventually find that the brand they own has become a commodity with little value.

Mature Brand Marketing Challenge: Growth Against "Cooler" Upstart Competitors

Perhaps one of the best cautionary tales in depreciating brand value is Ocean Pacific (OP). The website of the Iconix Brand Group, the brand's current owner, offers this description of OP: "Founded in 1972, OP was the first company successfully translating the surfing lifestyle into a comprehensive fashion idea by focusing on the West Coast youth scene, fusing sports, music, art, and fashion with beach culture."

In short, OP invented what is now the action-sports apparel industry. Yet its products are now available only at Wal-Mart. No surf specialty, department, or "hipster" fast-fashion youth retailer wants the brand. That's not to say sales are poor. Within the Wal-Mart ecosystem, it is a star brand. As lucrative as a few seasons at Wal-Mart might be, they constitute the death throes of an apparel brand—especially a youth-focused one. That is because the primary motivation of Wal-Mart shoppers is price, not quality or brand.

How did that happen to OP? Explosive growth without brand management encouraged earlier OP brand owners to say "yes" to every deal that came their way. They signed brand-damaging deals with retailers that weren't aligned with the brand's core audience, trying to go mainstream but without staying true to their "roots." The fickle and often vindictive surf market quickly abandoned the brand as a sellout, and OP began its inevitable slide from action-sports godfather to mass-market commodity.

In 2008, the brand attempted a renaissance, hiring top-level designers and using high-quality manufacturers. It created a high-end sub-brand for the old-school longboarder, now in his 40s. Original '70s T-shirt graphics were applied to juniors' bikinis, and tens of thousands were spent on tradeshows to relaunch the brand to the trade. But it was too late.

4. Revival Brands (Evolve)

When a brand has been a household name with a broad fan base for a generation or more, brand managers settle into a routine and stop giving much thought to differentiation, awareness, and new competitors. In some cases, driven by an innovative television show or an A-list celebrity spokesperson, the brand can sustain itself for a long period with no overt signs of market weakness.

Many companies with such brands tend to hire managers with experience in maintaining a business, but little experience in brand extension, differentiation, or repositioning—skills essential to maintaining relevance when dramatic shifts occur in the marketplace. And they always occur.

One day, a survey shows that a new generation of teens views a brand as "old school." A new technical or cultural innovation makes the brand seem quaintly obsolete, or the brand begins to fade into the cultural background noise as newer competitors dazzle with novelty. Sometimes, changes in societal values provide a substantive reason for increased competition, and a brand that has enjoyed unchallenged success for decades must quickly adapt to survive.

At that point, it's critical that strong brand leadership act quickly to re-establish the brand's core relevance in the minds of its consumers, or risk the pull of commercial perceptions that will accelerate brand obsolescence.

A brand audit will often help initiate a repositioning strategy. Brand managers can quickly grasp the problem by identifying what parts of a brand are timeless and which aspects haven't aged well or are out of step with the modern mindset. From there, a refreshing brand strategy at every touch point must constantly eschew images, words, product lines, or marketing that makes the brand seem dated or irrelevant.

Revival Brand Marketing Challenge: Regain Relevancy

Examples of decades-old brands that have focused on making their core values relevant to new generations include Coca Cola, Ford, IBM, and Johnson & Johnson.

The much-beloved children's educational brand Sesame Street is also a prime example. Though many are unaware of it, Sesame Street is among the most celebrated shows in television history. It has aired since 1969 and it has received more Emmys than any other television show. But its brand longevity was not without hiccups.

Sesame Street invented the "edutainment" market, which consists of shows, videos, and toys that integrate education and entertainment. Its offerings are carefully tested by PhDs in child developmental psychology and rigorously reviewed by lifelong educators. Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit corporation behind Sesame Street, uses profits from the sale of toys such as Tickle Me Elmo to fund early childhood education worldwide, must now compete with divisions of Disney, Warner Bros., and Nickelodeon, as well as niche contenders like LeapFrog. None of those brands is under governmental regulations to ensure that its "educational" products actually educate; and as positive as some of those brands' offerings are, they do not face the level of scrutiny that Sesame Street does.

By almost obsessively testing it's consumers, Sesame Workshop has kept current with American tastes, and continued adjusting the show, the videos, and the product lines to align with each new generation of mothers. For a brief period however, Sesame Workshop's attention lapsed. A disastrous multiyear licensing deal was signed with Sears subsidiary Kmart that almost destroyed the long-term prospects of its apparel-licensing business, devaluing the brand to a commodity (see the earlier OP example).

The lessons learned from that single lapse led to Sesame Workshop's signing the first licensed character deal with apparel manufacturer Junk Food Clothing, which resulted in a new range of vintage character tees' being sold to wealthy suburban teens for $40 each at fashionable boutiques. It also led to overhauling its home video business and aligning its branding across all titles. It was an effective answer to encroaching retail competition from Disney's Baby Einstein, Clubhouse Mickey, and Nickelodeon's Dora empire.

Simultaneously, Sesame Workshop launched a new female character, Abby Cadabby, into the show, consolidating the brand reach of the already ubiquitous Elmo. That was impressively dexterous for a 40-year-old brand. This series of maneuvers again repositioned the brand for a current crop of moms as the most-trusted television brand.

A brand may be well known but so ubiquitous that it becomes background noise, and people forget why it's special. Relevance in a fresh context can become the growth engine for older brands.

* * *

Understanding a brand's stage of life can serve as a relevant takeoff point for campaign planning. By focusing on what is most critical for a brand's current circumstance, marketers can use their resources most effectively.

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Why You Should Match a Brand's Marketing to Its Stage of Life

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Dave Matli is principal of Hollywood, CA-based Matli Group, which brings a strategic brand rationale to every licensed deliverable by efficiently integrating licensing, branding, and design. He may be reached via