Brands of the past
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.