For­saken friends

Brands of the past

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - Mike Master­son Mike Master­son is a long­time Arkansas jour­nal­ist. Email him at mmas­ter­son@arkansason­line.com.

Like me, many read­ers grew up with fa­mil­iar busi­ness brands that ranged from F.W. Wool­worth’s to Lion Oil ser­vice sta­tions and, more re­cently, the de­funct Block­buster Video. I en­joyed spend­ing flirty, care­free evenings with teenage friends at the long-gone Fisher’s HiBoy in Har­ri­son.

Th­ese, as with so many busi­ness brands, are ex­am­ples of com­pa­nies that flour­ished for years only to fade rel­a­tively quickly from Amer­ica’s everyday life. Any­one else re­call be­ing cap­ti­vated as a child by the aroma of pop­corn at the lo­cal Ben Franklin? I even re­call its creaky wooden floor.

Re­mem­ber the orig­i­nal Com­paq per­sonal com­put­ers that merged with Hewlett-Packard in 2002? The “you’ll love it at Le­vitz” fur­ni­ture stores? How about West­ern Auto, Oklahoma Tire and Sup­ply, and Cir­cuit City (which folded in 2009) or the wildly pop­u­lar Mont­gomery Ward stores?

Be­ing raised with th­ese lost brands in­stilled in me an emo­tional tie. I sus­pect other baby boomers feel like­wise.

But as with ev­ery­thing in this life­time, mar­ket forces blended with so­ci­etal trends change en­tire busi­ness land­scapes, es­pe­cially among brands that also must change.

We see such evo­lu­tion all around us, even to the mega shop­ping malls that for decades have been so pop­u­lar but to­day face enor­mous chal­lenges in re­cre­at­ing their rel­e­vance.

Many brand­ing changes over the past three decades stem from prover­bial lunkers de­vour­ing smaller keep­ers, as well as out­right busi­ness fail­ures. Such change in shop­ping pref­er­ences also comes at the hands of the In­ter­net along with our com­put­ers and cell phones, which make it sim­ple and con­ve­nient to shop and or­der on­line.

Any prod­uct is usu­ally on the shop­per’s doorstep within a cou­ple of days. There are of­ten no ship­ping costs and a gen­er­ous re­turn pol­icy. This means a vast se­lec­tion of mer­chan­dise is read­ily avail­able with a few key­strokes and a credit card. Brand pref­er­ences can be­come an af­ter­thought.

From all I’ve learned about the late Aaron Mont­gomery Ward, he in the late 1800s un­know­ingly would turn his in­ge­nu­ity and brand into the cre­ative con­cept be­hind the In­ter­net sales ex­plo­sion we see to­day.

As a ru­ral sales­man, Ward rec­og­nized just how many po­ten­tial cus­tomers lived in the hin­ter­lands. It wasn’t that th­ese po­ten­tial cus­tomers didn’t have an in­ter­est in buy­ing goods, but most just never had the op­por­tu­nity to shop in a large city.

So he de­vel­oped the idea for a mail-or­der cat­a­log. Read­ers any­where could pe­ruse the mer­chan­dise be­fore plac­ing an or­der by mail, then pick it up at the lo­cal train sta­tion.

Lo­cal re­tail­ers with lim­ited in­ven­to­ries un­der­stand­ably didn’t much like Ward or his ap­proach to com­merce. Yet cus­tomers loved it, as ev­i­denced by the decades of suc­cess from this blend­ing of Mont­gomery Ward cat­a­log with its stores.

What’s hap­pen­ing to­day fol­lows the same pat­tern. Our cat­a­logs have be­come an In­ter­net filled with so many choices. Place an or­der and for­get the train when FedEx or UPS ar­rives at the front door within days.

Ward’s cat­a­log worked be­cause it filled a large gap by ac­com­mo­dat­ing cus­tomers and their de­sires. That, of course, meant putting the cus­tomer first.

The fa­mil­iar brands of the past that weren’t ab­sorbed ob­vi­ously failed in var­i­ous ways to re­main ded­i­cated to that fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­pal.

Ar­ca­ture mar­ket­ing con­sul­tant Larry Light con­tends there are many iden­ti­fi­able ways busi­nesses can make a mess of their brands. First is the mis­taken be­lief that what worked yes­ter­day will see one though to­day. “Cus­tomers change, the world changes, brand rep­u­ta­tions change and com­pe­ti­tion changes,” Light writes in a re­cent ar­ti­cle. “Do­ing what once worked when the cur­rent land­scape is dif­fer­ent makes no sense. Mar­kets and cus­tomers change quickly. So com­pa­nies must be flex­i­ble, ag­ile, and quickly de­ci­sive.”

He also be­lieve a fail­ure to in­no­vate courts dis­as­ter. “Brands need cus­tomer-in­sight-driven in­no­va­tion to stay rel­e­vant. In­no­va­tions breathe life into brands. It’s im­por­tant for busi­nesses to un­der­stand in­no­va­tion and im­prove­ment are not the same thing. In­no­va­tion means do­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent. It doesn’t mean do­ing the same thing bet­ter,” he writes.

Fail­ing to fo­cus on core cus­tomers is de­struc­tive to any brand’s suc­cess. “The list is long of brands that lost fo­cus on the core cus­tomer and suf­fered be­cause of it,” Light says. “Mak­ing sure that loyal cus­tomers don’t de­fect to a com­peti­tor is key to the bot­tom line. Re­search we did at Ar­ca­ture showed loyal cus­tomers are eight times as valu­able as some­one who just con­sid­ers your brand. Los­ing a small per­cent­age of core cus­tomers will ac­count for a dis­pro­por­tion­ate amount of lost in­come for the brand.”

So farewell Pan Amer­i­can Air­ways, Amoco Oil and S&H Kress brands, along with the once strong and ven­er­a­ble Arkansas Gazette. You also were ap­pre­ci­ated and en­joyed by a bunch of us who still know who you were.

But th­ese pesky times will never stop chang­ing. And there’s no busi­ness I can imag­ine, re­gard­less of its brand, that doesn’t be­come (and re­main) suc­cess­ful by putting po­ten­tial cus­tomers’ needs first while never invit­ing its self-in­flicted demise by be­com­ing com­pla­cent and/or ar­ro­gant.

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