Renegotiating Brand Promises: How to Survive in a Changing World

The world is always changing. Similar to how we expect our idols to never change as a bullwark against the unknown, so do we cling to brands. Brands are monumental. Brands outlive their creators, brands change hands, brands like Coca Cola have been around for over a century. Brands are things you trust your life and livelihood with.

People believe in brands, positively or negatively. There is never any mistake, in the minds of the true believers, what the brand promise is even if it is unspoken. Chic-Fil-A and Papa John’s found themselves in the middle of a political firestorm where their consumer base was split down the middle and demanding one side be chosen. There are, however, times when society makes demands the brands cannot or should not withstand. The problem is that brand promises are just that: promises. People count on them.

You can’t stay the same as the world changes around you without a negotiated truth.

Evolve, Pivot, Rediscover, or Perish

Some of the world’s most profitable and enduring companies have achieved their long track record of success by reinventing themselves. Sears is a perfect example, at least until recently. A classic example of a business that failed to adapt to the point where it nearly destroyed them are the large music studios during the rise of Napster and the MP3 boom. What makes that even better is it’s a recent example of organizations that attempted to fight against organic social change and nearly destroyed all good faith in the process. Now the general public not only dislikes the, but sees them as disconnected dinosaurs.

Accepting harsh realities becomes easier when faced with extinction.

Harder challenge comes with brands who are trying to stay ahead of the curve predicting social trends or capitalizing on them. Realizing you need to shift focus before you’re bankrupt, this is especially important for small businesses and startups.

Pivoting is altering what you are offering, evolving is changing who you are, and rediscovering is what happens when you’ve lost control of your brand. Rediscovering your brand promise and perhaps reverting back to an older version to remind everyone of who you are is especially difficult because it seems counter-intuitive to evolution, but we’re not talking about dinosaurs into birds here. A brand isn’t a different species, it is a community, – it is human – and sometimes reconnecting with the past is the only way to move forward. For legacy companies – confident companies – it’s easy to forget. That’s where we discover hubris.

In the above examples, we can imagine a person trying to figure out where they fit in the world and how they can be of service to it. For humans, this changes across the span of one’s entire life, why should it be different for organizations created by people, maintained by people, interacting with people, and existing in service to people?

A brand promise has the momentum of truth, a slogan is just an ad for the brand promise. Click To Tweet

Embrace the Value of Truth

If you asked anybody what Google’s brand promise is, you’d probably get two answers: being the largest repository of information on the planet, and “Don’t be Evil.” The latter changed recently, and there’s rumblings of the former changing as well. That’s not a coincidence. What is Google’s brand promise right now? Does anybody believe in Google?

Everybody demands truth, but hardly anybody could define what the truth is if asked. The roots of truth extend down to the very soul of our begins and the societies we create, but it’s difficult to grab. Developing a brand promise requires identifying a central truth about the brand and communicating it. Promises can change, but the truth must stay the same. That’s what separates a brand promise from a slogan. A brand promise has the momentum of truth, a slogan is just an ad for the brand promise. When Billy Corgan goes on Joe Rogan Experience to discuss the appeal of Axl Rose being total freedom – or similarly, Kanye West – that is a truth that goes beyond the minutiae of specific actions.

It would be easy for Google to hold steady in a rapidly changing world if they knew what evil was so they knew not what to be. “Don’t be Evil” was what separated Google from Altavista, but Google didn’t understand the truth about evil, really. That runs to the core of our spirituality and ethic and mythological substructures. But if they did know, if they put the work into defining what evil was and what they were choosing not to be? People might still believe in them, instead of just being ubiquitous. There’s a big difference.

Change! No … Wait! Stay the Same!

The best way to know your brand promise is rock solid is having to change.

Many brands evolve over time out of sheer survival just so they can exist within the new social paradigm. Some – like tobacco – change due to regulation and government intervention. Others, like McDonalds and other fast food companies, are forced to adapt to an increasingly health-conscious marketplace. Your community will be the barometer, megaphone, and ambassador for the world at large. As long as you support and engage with this microcosm, you will have all the tools you need to negotiate your way through a changing world.

There’s no question that businesses evolve their practices over time; unionization, the 40 hour work week, paternity leave, acceptable office conduct; what often start as optional benefits can become social norms within a generation and organizations have to adapt to retain their employees and attract the best talent. In the same vein, brands are forced to keep up with social norms from external stakeholders. A PepsiCo VP recently claimed that brands have to think about their place in society, stating “brands need to think about the impact they have on society and culture. […] They have the power to change culture, especially when there’s a need and a vacancy.”

In the highly politicized, highly divided, highly emotional world we live in where lists of demands come from every conceivable political group, faith, and identity, it’s easy to become paralyzed. But keep in mind: even rebelling against a rapidly changing society by refusing to play entirely requires acknowledging reality and being strategic about it. You don’t get to pretend that it’s not happening, and it’s one of the reason brands must adopt the community model.

For your organization, you may not have the social capital – the community – for people to petition you to change. You might not have built up a community of people invested in you. They may be more likely to abandon you without warning if you haven’t adapted and it’s your job to figure out where the tremors began.

A genuine brand promise grows out of a well understood truth that is manifested as a goal and delivered on, a well understood truth that people can identify with. A brand promise is just a slogan without it. Whether or not you need to pivot to survive, rebrand to adapt, or rediscover to regain control, remember the phrase to carve through the chaos: the momentum of truth.

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Nick Rayner

Nick Rayner

With years of experience in content creation, digital marketing and working with emerging brands, Nick embraces the Social Media and Content Manager role with gusto.

nickrayner has 18 posts and counting.See all posts by nickrayner