How do you solve a problem like... turning around a declining brand?

Each week, we ask agency experts from across the world and the ad business for their take on a tough question facing the industry, from topical concerns to perennial pain points.

As part of our Deep Dive series last week on fast-growth brands, The Drum’s Hannah Bowler dissected the new brand strategy of Made.com (the furniture website). Jude Whyte, director of brand creative at Made.com told us her mission is to bring back the “standout energy” it possessed previously, in order to see off rivals.

“We have to prove to our customers again that we have more extraordinary things to show them,” she said. “Everyone has become an interior designer now and feels relatively confident in their choices – Made needs to inject more unexpected ideas.”

Helping a brand refresh or reset its image after a period of establishment, or even stagnation, is a classic problem marketers and agencies try to crack every day. But before the operation can begin, there needs to be a full examination of a brand. So, we asked our expert readers how they approach that problem.

How do you solve a problem like... turning around a declining brand?

Matt Boffey, chief strategy and innovation officer, Superunion

Turning around a brand’s decline must start with understanding the past. It’s useful to ask what the founding ethos, vision or purpose of the brand was. What was the problem it promised to solve for consumers, or the tension it sought to address or mitigate?

Often, answers to these questions remain relevant and compelling to people. It’s just a case of finding out who to and in what particular ways. What this can show is that the business doesn’t have a brand problem, but an expression or execution problem.

The brand’s relevance is limited by its communications or its product – and these need to be updated for the brand to be truly refreshed and turned around. Sometimes a ‘brand reset’ brief is a way of avoiding a more difficult fix in terms of product, service or experience.

Ayla de Moraes, strategy director, Publicis.Poke

The fundamental decision here is ‘why?’ Is it in decline because the business model is flawed or superseded by something better? Is it because another player has arrived with bigger budgets or better distribution? Is it because consumers buying habits have changed?

If it’s the first, then brave decisions to fix the business model need to be made. If it’s the second, can you outsmart and out-think the bigger player? If it’s the final, it is solvable by shifting your distribution model.

If Avon can go from door-to-door sales of books to an international beauty company, frankly any business can survive a decline. Only one thing stands in your way: are you brave enough to do the necessary?

Chris Chalk, chief strategy officer, BBH Singapore

Three things… First, understand the problem. Identify why you are where you are. And do it with brutal self-reflection. Every element of your brand needs analysis… and everything around it.

Second, create a difference that makes a difference. Reversing a decline needs real creativity – in your thinking and in your execution. This is where many people fail.

Third, over commit. Unless you make a total commitment, you won’t create the momentum needed to succeed. No half-hearted decisions, no toes dipped in water, no regrets.

Brand transformation isn’t for the fainthearted.

Ben Armistead, executive strategy director, 72andSunny Amsterdam

For brands and customers alike, the greatest value is created when there’s an overlap between the brand world and the real world. Brands stumble when that point of intersection starts drifting apart.

In a turnaround, the first step is to understand how and why a gap is being created between customer expectations and what the brand delivers. The next step is to find renewed resonance by identifying the truth at the heart of the brand, and then refracting it afresh for today’s world.

Brand building is a dance of repetition and reinvention. Staying true to who you are and consistently investing in that story, while constantly looking for ways to make it relevant for new customers, new spaces and new markets.

Rediscover your essence and innovate around it.

Simon Bruyn, head of creative, Mother LA

First, figure out what is and isn’t working. Sometimes the ingredients are right but they’re in the wrong proportions; other times you need to revert to something the brand stood for a while ago that they walked away from. You want to see if there’s some truth in what the brand has that could be used moving forward.

However, that isn’t always the case and restarting a brand from scratch is sometimes best. Before you do that, ensure you aren’t missing out on a characteristic, feeling or thought that could be an incredible point of differentiation in their DNA that simply may not have been used correctly.

Caitlin Reynolds, executive vice-president and portfolio lead, Saatchi & Saatchi

To return to growth, identify what’s really standing in the way. Examine what used to deliver growth for the brand. What is it best known for? What connections do consumers have to it and why? So often, what once made a brand shine has become a barrier impeding growth and modernity. And brands can perpetuate this by forgetting to modernize their playbook to meet today’s consumer. The beauty of the barrier is that, when contextualized for today, it can help identify a unique point of view that can become a brand’s superpower – and ticket to growth.

Britt Iversen, executive strategy director, Havas London

For every cassette there’s a CD; for every vinyl record there’s a Spotify. Ask yourself: what kind of brand are you? Who are you for? And why are you losing your sparkle?

Are you a heritage brand that’s lost relevance to a younger audience? An old product in a tsunami of cultural or competitive change? An emblem of a behavior that’s no longer big or interesting, but could be reframed to be so? An original innovator getting caught up by new shiny things?

Sometimes, what you really need is to find the original gold nugget of innovation and confidence that gave birth to the brand and then rediscover its beautiful core. Ask: ‘When were we proudest, what did we bring, what did we stand for and how can we make that relevant again?’ And keep asking – you’ll get to the right answers, or at least to interesting ones.

Sid McGrath, chief strategy officer, Wunderman Thompson UK

If you want to refresh your brand, it’s too easy to focus on the ‘how’, not the ‘why’. The timeless ‘planning cycle’ asks five deceptively simple questions: Where are we? Why are we there? Where could we be? How could we get there? Are we getting there?

The first two are invaluable as they’re all about the ‘why’, the problem. Why is the brand in need of refresh? Why is it stagnating, and is it for internal or external reasons? Only once these thornier, more difficult why questions have been answered can we then consider ‘where could we be?’, the ultimate ambition of the brand – the solution.

Leaping too quickly to the ‘how’ of ‘how could we get there?’ risks tactical and unsustainable thinking. It’s always better to crack the problem first. Then, the answer often becomes helpfully obvious.

Karen Piper, director of strategy, Grow

We start where the brand stopped, looking at the ‘why’ behind the stagnation and where the brand is failing to connect to its audience meaningfully. Taking this human-first approach allows us to look beyond the renewed brand promises and taglines to understand how the brand must show up in consumers’ lives and, crucially, drive actual engagement. If brands want to change perception, they need to ensure that the new brand is not only relevant to the audience’s wants and needs but, more importantly, that it delivers on the renewed brand promises by engaging people in new and unexpected ways.

Rosie Krzyzanowska, account director, Missouri Creative

To tackle a brand in decline you only need to understand one thing – why it lost its relevance.

It could be your brand or product is no longer relevant in the ever-changing lifestyle of your consumers. It could be that the category you play in has become saturated with more relevant (and potentially better) competitors. Or it could be that your brand has lost its cultural relevance.

Dig deep to understand the consumer, the competition and the culture, and build a plan that addresses your relevance issue.

You may need to reposition and rebrand to meet the expectations of your target consumer. You may need to innovate and look at NPD to outmaneuver the competition or readdress your communication to find your voice in an evolving cultural landscape. Relevance is a journey, not a destination. It is iterative. It is relentless. And it requires bravery and vision. But it is ultimately why people choose you.

Want to join future debates? Email me at sam.bradley@thedrum.com.