Commentary

Let's Throw The Idea Of Brand Life Cycle Out The Window

It’s a fundamental idea that has long been drilled into the minds of marketers: that brands have a predetermined lifespan. But it’s scientifically inaccurate, and leads marketers to miss tremendous opportunities.

The belief, essentially, is that there is built-in obsolescence — that brands increase their market share the most at the beginning and use those early financial gains to fuel further market gains during middle age. Then, copycats come along, put downward pressure on price, and further market share gains become difficult. What follows is a period of decline and ultimately death.

This firmly held belief is based on a misinterpretation of a surface observation: that young brands tend to have higher growth rates, while older brands tend to stagnate or decline. But that’s a matter of correlation, not cause and effect.

When sales slow down, it’s not because of a brand’s age. It’s a result of attrition in the customer’s subconscious. And that’s something marketers can -- and must -- address.

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In Knowledge@Wharton, marketing professor and neuroscientist Michael Platt and I shared our discovery: Inside the subconscious of every person is a hidden matrix of accumulated memories and associations that have become “glued” to any given brand. We call this the Brand Connectome. The strength of this matrix is the most important driver of success.

The Brand Connectome is like a plant. It needs nourishment to keep growing. That nourishment is an influx of new, positive associations. When brand leaders allow negative associations to accumulate, it’s like a virus spreading across a plant.

Take McDonald’s, for example. A few years ago, it faced a  slump. Consumers perceived it as overprocessed, assembly-line food. At first, the brand tried to tackle the myths about its food head-on by having scientists discuss them. But this only made things worse, drilling the negative perceptions into the subconscious of consumers.

Then McDonald’s switched strategies. It worked to replace, not refute, the negative associations. It highlighted quality ingredients and fresh cooking on the premises, like a freshly cracked egg frying. The brand bounced back -- not because it suddenly became youthful, but because it replaced negative associations with positive ones.

UPS, Lego, Old Spice, Adidas and Marvel have undergone similar turnarounds. Once they shed their negative associations, these mature brands experienced new waves of growth. (By the way, young brands are no more likely than older brands to enjoy healthy growth. Indeed, most new brands struggle; it’s just the ones you hear about that achieve double-digit growth.)

Consumers are not ageist. They have enormous respect for brands that have endured. If mature brands were destined to go out of business, we would never see an older one succeed. 

But people instinctively reach for the brand that is most positive and salient in their mind, no matter how long it’s been around.

When it comes to brands, there is no preordained revenue path, no cemetery of logos that awaits. Unlike human beings, brands can live eternally. But to thrive, they need the proper nourishment.

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