Brand Strategy Branding Marketing

Is your brand a zombie? Here’s how to bring it back to life

By Rob Allen, Strategy partner

June 7, 2023 | 8 min read

Rob Allen, strategy partner, Coley Porter Bell, examines how you can tell whether your brand is merely imitating signs of life, or whether there’s a chance of revival.

A clicker from HBO zombie drama The Last Of Us

Zombies never really die in the public imagination. Can your brand pull off the same trick? / HBO

One of horror movies’ scariest and most iconic antagonists, zombies are a constant in this genre of storytelling. In some quarters, humans are preparing for the day these fictional flesh-eaters become a reality. It may sound far-fetched, but the day of reckoning may be with us much sooner than expected – for we are at risk of the epidemic spreading to our products and services.

As May – also known as Zombie Awareness Month (yes, it really is a thing) – passes on for another year, it’s time for a brand MOT. Decades of TV shows and films have prepared us for this moment, so here are the tell-tale signs that your brand has been infected.

Is your brand tired, stumbling around or losing direction? Are teenagers running screaming from your social posts? Does your brand slurp up resources while being stuck in the past?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then you are at risk of managing a zombie brand. How did this happen, I hear you ask? It’s all down to your brand’s relevance to life – or the lack of it.

Relevance is tricky territory for brands. Get it right and you become woven into the very fabric of people’s lives – a part of their self-identity, an automatic choice or best friend. Get it wrong, however, and your brand isn’t even a consideration.

For some categories, self-identity is an obvious part of the purchase - sporting brands rely on it, for instance. Fans are supporters of their team for life, passing the devotion down, generation by generation. They do not change teams just because their team is terrible or at risk of relegation. Loyalty is ingrained into the relationship, at a level that regular brands could only dream of.

Other categories may appear to be more operational, but even then, a sense of self sneaks in. Banking is one of the most functional – choosing a bank and paying bills is based on price and convenience. And yet, are the millennials choosing Starling and Revolut based on their interest rates? Or are they instead identifying as digital natives, who don’t want to bank with some creaky old monolith that would happily lend to the Addams Family?

For brands in categories where consumers are consciously and actively choosing an identity, this is an especially acute challenge. Fashion brands need to stay, well, fashionable. Burberry is the first that comes to mind when thinking of brands that escaped the clutches of the zombie brand epidemic. Once slowly sinking into irrelevance, Burberry tapped into the zeitgeist with Kate Moss in 1999. The result was the then 143-year-old brand shooting back out of the crypt and into the light of relevance, where it’s stayed ever since.

It's becoming tougher for brands to stay relevant as culture becomes more nuanced. Society is increasingly fragmented, so brands must decide who they want to be important to. It doesn’t help that identity has frequently become negatively defined. Do you think avocado on toast is the best thing since sliced bread, or that these small green fruits are responsible for the UK’s housing crisis? You’re anti-woke or OK Boomer. So brands must check their segmentation, and if it says ‘everyone’ – and you’d be amazed how often it does – they need to up their precision, choose their tribe and engage positively with them.

The price of getting this wrong can be high. Remember Nike’s difficulties supporting Colin Kaepernick taking a knee? It may feel like a better option to stay behind the fence in the safety of the compound, but neutrality is no longer an option. Gone are the days when a business’s only business was business. Consumers today expect active engagement from their brands. Undead passivity is not a choice. People align with a brand’s values before they make a purchase.

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Nike’s dilemma was an explosive one, but more often brands suffer long, lingering declines, slowly sliding from choice and consideration into the fetid mental gloam of yesterday’s brands. Think of Woolworths – every sticky-fingered child’s favorite place for pick’n’mix? Now only available in sepia.

Dust tends to gather most on brands with strong cultural links to a particular time and place. These associations start as a positive, but there’s a risk that these brands can become becalmed in the eddies of history. So extra dollops of gravy to Oxo, a brand that has managed to stay relevant since the first ‘Oxo family’ ad in 1958. This is especially impressive as advertising years unfold at the same pace as dog years. The secret was to stay the same, but constantly change. Same family values, different expressions.

There were moments over the past few years when the whole retail sector was at risk of zombie infection. Digital brands were going to turn bricks and mortar outlets into tombs, but they failed for two reasons. First, the elder brands wised up to the omnichannel world. And second, retail has never just been about buying stuff. It’s about buying stuff with other people. It’s the most alive category there is, when done in a way that’s appealing to the senses, rather than treating it as a functional forum for the exchange of cash for things.

Look at M&S’s recent return to the land of the living. The business spent almost 20 years in steady decline, getting greyer and dustier as its audience aged. But now it’s sprung back to life by revamping its fashion ranges to appeal to a younger audience, and it’s reacted nimbly to inflation by offering more affordable food. The brand is now surpassing expectations and sharing full-year results that boast a return to growth.

The brands that arm themselves with strong values, a clear sense of their audience, an understanding of culture, and engage the senses, will find and maintain relevance – the lifeblood of every successful brand. Avoid zombification by engaging minds, not eating them.

Rob Allen is strategy partner of Coley Porter Bell

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