Your products are racking up five-star reviews on Amazon. Your services are bewitching Yelp. Street artists are appropriating your logo. Clearly, the next thing on your to-do list is to scale as fast as possible. And then maybe buy a Caribbean island, from where you can oversee your brand’s world domination.
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But before you tap Richard Branson for his real estate agent’s number, you may want to consider the other beloved brands -- from Firestone Tire & Rubber to Laura Ashley to Nokia -- that have stumbled over the years. These are all companies that, in their haste to grow, lost sight of why people liked them in the first place.
How can you avoid their fate?
“It’s not just about growing your business, but how you grow,” says Seth Gaffney, of Preacher, a hip Austin, Tex.-based creative company.
First off, Gaffney says, have a plan. Technology enables many startups to expand before they know who they are or what they are about. “Many firms are tech platforms with brands built around them. There’s no brand clarity or direction. Without those foundations, a company can scale quickly but grow poorly,” he says.
But even startups with good brand clarity can falter because they lose focus on intangibles like mission and message. These are increasingly important to consumers -- particularly younger ones. “[They] demand that brands have values and a purpose,” says Gaffney. “And now it is easy to see if companies abandon these along the way to save a few bucks.”
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What those values are, exactly, varies. Take those woolen Allbirds shoes so beloved by Silicon Valley types. It doesn’t matter if they quickly disintegrate, as long as they are prized for their comfort and cachet rather than their durability. On the other hand, if that supposedly rugged Yeti cooler falls apart when you hit a pothole, the brand has real problems. “Consumers can be forgiving about products, but less so if companies compromise on their mission statement,” says Gaffney.
Another big challenge facing growing companies: the temptation to do too much. Andrew Deitchman, CEO of The New Stand -- a startup that aims to revolutionize the traditional subway newsstand -- says: “As you grow and get more feedback, it is incredibly tempting to try too hard to please too many people -- your investors, partners and customers. This can end up being distracting for the business and confusing for your customers.”
Mike Karam, head of strategy at ad agency Laird + Partners -- whose clients include Tom Ford and Tiffany & Co. -- agrees that many companies can easily lose their sense of purpose after a while. “Look at all the artisanal coffeehouses that have sprung up to take advantage of some of Starbucks’ missteps,” he says. “Here’s a brand that tried to do too much. Instead of smelling freshly roasted coffee when they entered, customers would smell grilled cheese. Starbucks no longer felt like a coffee shop. It lost its way.”
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Companies can also be too impatient to reach new customers and claim new business, undermining their brands’ prestige by slashing prices or offering too many promotions. Savvy businesses, Gaffney notes, rarely discount products but instead have specific promotions to nurture new services. Take Crate and Barrel, which adds value with its CrateDesignStudio. Or Everlane, the radically transparent clothing company, which doesn’t have sales at all. Instead it offers customers the opportunity to pay what they want on some items (setting a minimum, of course). Strategies like these lend an air of special access, without screaming “bargain.”
“At the end of the day, the brand is everything,” says Karam. “Companies who know who they are, and whose values are aligned with their customers’, tend to make the right decisions intuitively when it comes to growing their businesses.
“Anyway,” he adds, “these days, you may own the company, but it is the consumer who really owns your brand.”