Brand spanking

Everyone is getting spanked these days. Forget the headline meltdowns like Circuit City, General Motors, Borders, and XM Sirius. Many smaller chips along the byways, retail strips and mall aisles of America—and the companies who supply them, are getting knocked around or knocked out.

The Great Recession as not just a wakeup call, it’s a fire alarm. Businesses are burning—some categories are down 30 and 50 percent. Even Berkshire Hathaway has been downgraded by Moody’s and Warren Buffet has declared the economy a shambles. Some marketers—having lost their fringe consumers—are now trying to hold fast to their core market in a frenzy and doing things they should have been doing all along.

Some marketers accepted the brand challenge early on, accepting the fact they were out of sync, abandoned marketing by rote and started re-engineering themselves to success.

A few years ago, Kohl’s (a midlevel department store based in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin) may have ranked with Kmart in terms of stores, service and merchandise. Today, Kohl’s customer satisfaction ranks on par with Nordstrom’s, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index conducted by University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

Kohl’s?!

(For details of their success, scan Google for the articles and blogs.)

Brand spankers like Kohl’s are not alone. Look at the success of companies like Coach, who in recent years faced off against Kate Spade and Gucci to give themselves a brand spanking refresh—from their traditional brown leather bags to the colorful styles you see today. (True, Coach sales may be down now. But they are ideally positioned for a rebound.) Lacoste has emerged from the discount outlet malls to regain contender status. Hyundai, formerly an also-ran Korean car manufacturer, has suddenly found itself in the fast lane with its “Assurance” buy-back program. Hope prevails.

(Yes, some of these efforts started before the recession, and that’s the point. Brand spanking is not for recessions alone—strengthening core products while shedding weak performers, keeping staff at efficient performance levels, minimizing costs, fine tuning your positioning, and innovation not for its own sake but in just the right places—are things we should be doing all along.)

Remember what century you’re in. If you’re still doing things like it’s 1999—or 1959, it’s time for a rethink. Companies like Campbell’s, Johnson & Johnson, Office Max, Nabisco Ritz Crackers, and Clorox (Clorox!? who last year bought Burt’s Bee’s) are trying new ways of reinventing their companies, their product lines and their paths to market.

Look at their success and we are reminded that even smallest details count. Especially important in times like these is attitude.

I love this story (which may be apocryphal). A company was in dire straits. There was no budget for a marketing campaign. Nothing. In desperation, the president gathered his 100-plus employees around him. “Wherever you go,” he said in desperation. “Whether it’s at your kid’s soccer game, church functions, neighborhood cookout, birthday parties, baseball games, family get-togethers, tell everyone how happy you are to work here. How much you love your job. Tell them what a great company this is.” Simple. Cost? Zero. And the tactic was successful: within three months the company was back on track. Happy employees beget happy customers. It’s what Whole Foods ceo John Mackay calls ‘the virtuous cycle’.

And try smiling. Treat your customers as exceptional parts of your brand community rather than as an inconvenience. I don’t know about you, but when I walk into Starbucks these days (it doesn’t seem to matter what city I’m in: New York, Chicago, Beijing), I feel like I’m interrupting something behind the counter. In addition to losing focus generally, Starbucks also seems to have lost focus on their customer. 

Finally, while that may sound quixotic to suggest, there is light at the end of the tunnel. We are reminded that companies like Starbucks, Sharper Image, Polo Ralph Lauren, American Girl and others launched during their respective recessions.

There will be success stories about this Great Recession. Make your company one of them.