Brand Myopia

Written on April 15, 2013

Branding and advertising agencies bring professional distance to their clients by being able to see brands as they really are. The agency can step back from corporate strategic thinking that sometimes errs with off-brand strategies and marketing, and provide perspective. Longer ago than I’m willing to admit, as a junior copywriter at Leo Burnett in Chicago, I first encountered (and recognized) a wicked case of brand myopia. Our client, FILA, had enjoyed an unexpected surge in popularity in urban markets; young African-American males had begun buying certain FILA shoes. An upscale brand in line with K-Swiss or Tretorn, FILA sponsored athletes such as tennis players, runners, and solo competitive sailors.

FILA’s immediate response to their sudden popularity was to offer up a more moderately priced shoe they hoped would have greater penetration into the urban markets where they had seen this traction, and, of course, to advertise to that market. We argued against this strategy. We explained that these folks were buying FILA shoes because of the high-end, upscale FILA brand. To offer up a “cheap” alternative would be disastrously off-brand and the strategy would fail. But FILA was owned and run by Italian businessmen who didn’t truly understand American urban markets. Long story short, they didn’t listen. The cheap shoes didn’t sell. And, if memory serves, we resigned the account on the grounds of terminal brand myopia.

The land of dead and dying businesses is littered with examples of brand-myopic companies. When this sort of shortsightedness is manifested in strategic decisions, the results are often disastrous. Take Cadillac, once the premier General Motors offering, as an example. While Cadillac is still hanging by a thread alongside the rest of GM, it is a brand in decline – a decline you can trace back to the introduction of the Cimarron in the late ’80s and the Catera (the Caddy that zigs) in the ’90s. The Cimarron was considered a “compact executive” model, while the Catera was an entry-level “sports model.” “But wait,” we all wondered at the time, “isn’t the Cadillac brand about roomy, luxurious, expensive cars?” The Cimarron and the “Caddy that zigs” were all wrong. Miles off brand. The decision was brand-myopic. What drove Cadillac’s decision? Cadillac sought to give the aspiring Cadillac owner an entry into Cadillac ownership. The problem was that aspiring Caddy owners wanted a Caddy, not a dressed up version of an Opel Omega. In their shortsightedness, Cadillac failed to recognize that big, luxurious, and expensive were key to their brand.

How about Jos. A. Bank? When I was growing up, buying a Jos. A. Bank suit was a big deal. It was considered a relatively high-end brand. Now, because of their buy-one-suit-get-the-whole-dadgum-store-for-free promotional advertising, I think of Jos. A. Bank clothing as cheap. Discount. While I can’t attest to the the Jos. A. Bank balance sheet, their treatment of the brand has been shortsighted and has likely done irreparable harm. They are headed down a road to brand ruin already travelled by Izod Lacoste. Lacoste has struggled years in trying to bring that brand back out of its grave.

Here’s a more subtle example: Secret Menu Items. It seems that most every fast casual restaurant has items you can order that are’t on the menu. [18 Secret Menu Items You Can Order at Fast Food Restaurants]. McDonalds, for example, has the Mc10:35, the love child of a mid-morning triste between the Egg McMuffin and a McDonald’s Cheeseburger that is only available during the ten minutes the restaurant changes from breakfast to lunch/dinner. If you’re familiar with In-N-Out Burger, the secret menu item is not an alien notion. In-N-Out knows that having secret items encourages brand loyalty. Only the insider knows about them. Being in-the-know (read: “brand aficionado” or “evangelist”) separates you from the rabble. But now, some of these restaurants are putting their not-so-secret-menu items on their websites. They are sharing bits of their culture that were, up to now, the province of their brand-loyal, with everybody else. Myopic.

So what’s the lesson to be learned? Proper stewardship of a brand means sticking by your guns. Know your brand. Know what it isn’t. And, no matter how big the dollar signs are that flash before your eyes, make brand-loyal decisions. This advice applies both to agency and client. The client must work always to see the brand clearly and the long-term consequences of strategic decisions. The agency must strive always to speak the truth, advise their client when they see strategy straying from the brand, and whip out the reading glasses when the client becomes brand myopic.