Brand Rehab: What To Do When Bad Things Happen To Good Brands

Kmart never intended to become the butt of jokes. They were once the proud destination of smart shoppers everywhere. There was a time when saying, “I got it from Kmart” was not a sign that something had gone desperately wrong for you.

Remember Circuit City? It was once one of the favorite destinations for anyone who wanted to buy anything with a plug attached. In fact, a large part of its brand was the iconic store fronts that look a bit like giant, red plugs. I still have one of those near my house. Except now it is a thrift store. The brand death of Circuit City continues long after the death of the company.

These are not the only two occupants of the brand landfill. It is a very crowded place full of brands that didn’t have to be there. Unlike the heat death of the universe, brand death is not inevitable. Even when companies go out of business, their brands can still live on as fond memories, and sometimes even valuable assets. Polaroid and Kodak still have brand value even though the film industry is only a shell of its former self. That said, it is inevitable that brands will go through tough times. The real question is what to do when bad things happen to good brands.


Before considering remedies, Forbes lays out the four sins committed by companies that get their brands into trouble:

  1. Taking your customers for granted
  2. Minimizing competition
  3. Ego
  4. Loss of objectivity

When the problems are laid out in this way, the solutions become obvious:

Never stop giving your customers a reason to come to you.

Even if you are the only business in a particular market segment, you must behave as if there were a host of competitors undercutting you at every turn. It is good practice for when that competitive pressure becomes real. Even when you have won, you can never act as if you’ve won. Once your customers start to resent you for reminding them that they have no other choice, they will jump ship the moment another choice shows up.

Staying engaged with customers is a key to keeping customers loyal. One way to do that is through social media. There is no excuse for low social media engagement. Your customers are using social media to talk about you for good or ill. You need to be there so that they can also talk to you. If you care about your brand and are not on social media yet, you should be.

A second way to stay engaged with your customers is to continually remind them that you’re there. Successful companies who stop advertising also tend to stop being successful companies. There is a good reason why McDonald’s, Coke, and Doritos pour countless millions into advertising. They don’t want you to hear more about Burger King, Pepsi, and Pringles. You have to find a way to stay top-of-mind with your customers. You can combine social media expertise and advertising by using a service like Matomy. Check out their news feed to see what a good social media campaign looks like.

Take your competition as seriously as your customers.

One of the main reasons a brand starts to slip is that competitors start eating into its value. Microsoft and RIM (now Blackberry) were so far out ahead in the smartphone game that when the iPhone was unveiled, they refused to see it as a threat to their dominance. The CEOs of those companies publicly scoffed and ridiculed the very idea of the iPhone.

Microsoft dismissed it as too expensive. They also had trouble believing that anyone would want to use their fingers to operate such a device. Blackberry’s objection was that the iPhone as demonstrated, was simply not possible. Palm dismissed the iPhone because they didn’t think some PC company was just going to walk into their market and have any success. Not one of those companies is a going concern in the smartphone industry.

Google, on the other hand, owns the part of the smartphone market that Apple does not. That is because when they saw the iPhone, they stopped what they were doing and started working on something that would be competitive. Today, the only non-iPhone smartphones that matter in the consumer market are those powered by the only company that immediately understood the Apple threat, took it seriously, and changed what they were doing to meet the threat. Had Google not made Android when and how they did, it would likely be iPhones all the way down.

Never take yourself too seriously.

The last two problems can be eliminated with this one piece of advice. Under Steve Jobs, Apple suffered from this problem more than any of their competitors. It cost them a bit of good will among a few high-profile fans.

Apple is often likened to a religion, in part, because they demonstrate no ability to laugh at themselves. They have about as much of a sense of humor as a government agency. Until recently, they could never laugh at themselves or own up to a simple mistake. Under Tim Cook, this is gradually changing for the better. Craig Federighi has become the new face of Apple at public events. He’s funny, self-deprecating, and utterly compelling in ways that Steve Jobs could never manage.

Google also avoided a crisis of egomaniacal stodginess by replacing Eric Schmidt with Larry Page as CEO. It is not as if Jobs or Schmidt were bad executives. On the contrary, they were brilliant at what they did. But while their products were adopted by the masses, their brands were on the verge of being in crisis due to their blindspots. According to the law, corporations are human. Make sure your customers see you as such.

Brand development and brand rehab is not about keeping bad things from happening to your brand, but about acting quickly to minimize and repair the damage. Staying engaged with your customers, taking the competitors seriously, and yourself less so, is a good way to stay out of the brand obits.