Don't Try To Turn An Aircraft Carrier On A Dime

  • by , Columnist, March 10, 2015

Amidst marketers’ continued obsession over everything Millennial, I’ve seen a number of brands looking to find lightning in a bottle by attempting to recast themselves as hip, trendy or too cool for school. Alignment with athletes or properties that personify that desired positioning is often among the marketing mix elements that rise to the top of the list of those seeking this re-polishing of an old apple. While such efforts are far from new, it strikes me that there are more than a handful of instances where this approach is doomed to failure, and that’s unfortunate because the mistake could have been easily avoided with a little simple homework.

As sports marketing researchers, we have a front row seat to fan sentiment, and finding the right fit between brands and properties. Whether it’s custom studies on proper brand alignment or even more generic studies on fan attitudes, it strikes me that the consumers targeted by these brand-athlete or brand-property associations have become a more discerning and skeptical lot, who can tell when the sponsoring brand has stepped too far out of their natural environs.

Metaphorically speaking, you can’t turn an aircraft carrier on a dime. There are clear boundaries and limitations that can inhibit a brand from casting themselves in a new light, if the beam falls too far astray from its natural place. Said otherwise, authenticity has become a critical prerequisite for these brand relationships. If your affiliation or partnership lacks that feel of authenticity, our research has shown that attempts to reposition too radically will fall on deaf ears, or worse yet, seem disingenuous or laughable. It’s akin to the 40-something crowd surfing at a concert or taking Jello shots. There are just some things that can’t work for brands that are straying too far from their comfort zones.

As a recent example, we were conducting brand perception qualitative work for a sporting goods manufacturer that included a projective exercise we often deploy to elicit a greater sense of brand fit through celebrity association. In one session, this part of the discussion turned to a well-established competitor that had recently launched a new campaign centered on a young and somewhat controversial athlete, who at face value did not appear to be a legitimate user or advocate of said brand. Not only did our respondents reject the notion of this affiliation as forced and mercenary, but it was derided as desperate and far askance from what they deemed had previously been a legitimate and authentic player in their category. That legitimacy was clearly now under reconsideration.

There’s an obvious lesson to be learned here. It’s easy for me, as a researcher, to strongly advocate for any brand considering such a repositioning through sports (or any other means) to make the investment in market study to gain an objective sense of fit between sponsor and property. On the flip side of the above horror story, one of my prouder memories, from more than a decade ago, was similar work that we did for another brand, where the research was a proactive assessment of which affiliations made the most sense. In this case, the brand was still looking to recast itself, but was mindful enough to do so in a way that didn’t overstretch its natural boundaries. The research helped them to understand how far they could go without losing authenticity. The brand remains a category leader, and their relationship with the athlete who the research recommended, remains a strong and central component of their marketing.

It’s easy to get caught up in the flavor of the week. And for established brands, it’s equally easy to overreact by trying to contemporize in ways that may seem right for the times, but aren’t necessarily right for the franchise. To go blindly down that path, you not only risk seeming unnatural to the new target you are seeking to connect with, but flirt with alienating the core customer base that may now wonder why they are being ignored. With an objective look through well thought out research, these costly errors can be avoided.

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