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Why trying to reorient a brand can burn your fingers

John W Walsh argues that the emotional appeal of a brand (its main value) is built up over years of consistent marketing and advertising.

By John W Walsh 01 December 2003

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John W Walsh argues that the emotional appeal of a brand (its main value) is built up over years of consistent marketing and advertising. Trying to change that appeal overnight will confuse and alienate consumers – as Coca-Cola and Guinness found.

One of the most-difficult challenges for marketing managers is to shepherd a brand successfully over time. From time to time one needs to make changes to appeal to emerging segments and younger customers, though current loyal customers like things just as they are. Attempting the appropriate balance between adaptation and consistency has more often led to failure than success.

Let’s take a look at the efforts in this area of two brands – Coca-Cola and Guinness – and see how momentary lapses in judgement have the potential to wreak havoc.

The most-striking example of failure when changing a product to appeal to a different and younger set of customers must be Coca-Cola’s introduction of “New Coke” in 1985.

Widely touted as the biggest blunder in marketing history, Coca-Cola had a momentary lapse in its typically shrewd marketing judgement by publicly tinkering with the formulation of its product.

The ensuing negative consumer sentiment shocked company insiders and industry observers alike. Coke swiftly did a U-turn, extricating itself from potential disaster.

“Learning experiences” such as this are often held up as lessons of which other companies should take note. Unfortunately, this appears not to be the case. So, let’s consider why and how the company with the most valuable brand in the world (worth in excess of $70bn according to Interbrand) allowed itself to make such a mistake.

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