Sounding Board: Negative press

Supervalu has plenty of company in other industries as it struggles to prop up its brand in the wake of bad news.

At a concert in Paris, Madonna is booed off the stage after pointing a gun at the audience and giving what was generally called a miserable—and short—performance.

Penn State University is devastated by sanctions in the wake of an unforgivable child abuse scandal.

Supervalu, once a powerhouse brand, has lost its way—as well as its most recent CEO— and is planning the corporate equivalent of a garage sale.

Facebook’s stock plummets from its IPO high after its first earnings report as a public company. Investors are said to be less interested in connecting with friends than they are in connecting their fists to CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s face.

Four unrelated events with a common denominator: all of them are “products” whose actions run counter to the old adage that “there is no such thing as bad publicity.”

Nothing in the food industry—at least for the moment—rises to the level of being scandalous or even in bad taste. But many companies are facing the prospect of reviving a flagging brand.

The question is how to keep and build  brand loyalty in an environment that conspires against it. This comment from ad executive Jim Mullen says it all: “Of all the things that your company owns, brands are the most important. Founders die. Factories burn down. Machinery wears out. Inventories get depleted. Technology becomes obsolete. Brand loyalty is the only sound foundation on which business leaders can build enduring, profitable growth.”

This is why even a company thought to be as powerful as Tesco plans to spend an estimated $1.6 billion to beef up its global brands. It is why Nestlé can successfully revive a century-old brand like Ovaltine and why Coca-Cola can bring back Fresca. It is how Volkswagen resurrected the Beetle and why we will probably be seeing Broadway revivals of Oklahoma for the next hundred years.

Brand loyalty is not about price. Successful marketers and retailers know that it is about establishing—or re-establishing—a bond with consumers. How to do it is where the real challenge lies.

As I have discussed before in this space, technology has been a real game-changer.  Many brands might not be around if not for websites and social media channels giving them the opportunity to introduce products, promotions and ideas. These venues have created more informed and demanding consumers. But also more disloyal ones that are constantly looking for a better deal and questioning the value of products they buy and where to buy them. In this regard, technology is capable of destroying brands rather than building them.

Nonetheless, technology is enabling marketers to build the value proposition.  However, do not just use it to talk about products on the Web, in traditional media or a burgeoning channel some call “appvertising” referring to the opportunities available on smart phones and tablets.

Listen to what consumers are saying and learn from them. You really cannot revive or expand a brand until you find out what it means to people. This is why some observers feel that names like A&P, Albertsons and others will eventually head to the boneyard.

On the other hand, it is why Procter & Gamble—through a combination of innovation, improvement and discipline—will remain one of the greatest marketers in history.

But nothing goes to the heart of brand building more than a company’s own culture and the management that is responsible for it. At Penn State it led to one bad decision after another and eventually to the institutions’ own implosion. To a lesser degree, and certainly for different reasons, so did the problems at Supervalu.

Those in top management at the most successful companies know that branding is not just a function of how much you spend on advertising and where, nor should it be changed simply because of the current economy. Branding is a long-term vision that makes a product or company part of the consumer’s lifestyle and not just another glossy marketing campaign.

I leave you with this thought whose origins I have not been able to track down:  “If you do not have a goal, how can you know when you have arrived?”

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