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Can Your “Why” Really Die?

Date Icon Oct 18, 2019
Author Icon Judi Friedman

Yes, it can. And quicker than you think.

Your brand story, if it’s going to truly resonate with your consumer family, must be rooted in your “Why”—why you do what you do. And if your “Why,” or your brand story, no longer resonates with your target audience, well, it won’t take long for the negative effects to show up. That’s because brand story is like a living, breathing part of your company. If your company is changing, even a little, your brand story should too. The story you tell consumers needs nourishment, attention, and regular checkups to stay healthy and keep you energized.

Just like the blood in your veins, your story shouldn’t stay in one place. It should always be moving and responding to context. In particular, you need to reassess your story’s role in the world to stay strong. If your brand is not allowed to respond to context, your story can easily harden, stop functioning entirely, and kill you off for good.

I can already hear the questions you have: What makes a “Why” die? And is it possible to make preemptive choices that can prevent a decaying brand story from killing you off?

Let’s start with the three main ways brand stories can weaken to the point of death and then I’ll offer a little coaching on maintaining strong story.

Death by Attrition

This is when a brand story is simply ignored as if unimportant, or as if that trusty 50-year-old brand identity will just never fail, and as a result the life-sustaining supports that keep a brand fresh are stripped away. Think of Toys R Us, an iconic store that throughout its life survived several recessions, retail downturns, the rise of online shopping, and the video game boom—only to die a sudden death in April of 2018 when nothing of particular note was threatening it. That’s because through all those years no one thought to recast what Toys R Us was for modern children—how it fit into family and kid life today. Right up to the bitter end, they played that same jingle—“I don’t wanna grow up, I’m a Toys R Us kid”—a song that no longer resonated with new audiences and just became a bid for nostalgia. As people began shopping online, the brand did little to adapt, and never put any money behind rebranding their identity. The result was all but inevitable—death by attrition.

Death by Drowning

This can happen in particularly lively markets that have had a long time to mature like, say, fast food restaurants or convenience stores. An iconic brand like McDonald’s, for example, once stood out in a mass culture that wasn’t all that familiar yet with premade ready-to-go consumables. Today, that market is flooded with a million options—Wendy’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, Carl’s Jr., you name it—that simply didn’t exist in the 1950s. To their credit, McDonald’s has responded creatively by introducing “healthier” options or portraying itself as cool with the “I’m lovin’ it” tag line. The extent to which these have been successful remains to be seen, but others like Pizza Hut and Dairy Queen, which appear stuck in a time warp, are destined for trouble and will drown in a sea of better, more relevant options if they don’t revisit their “Why.” When you can’t reassess your story and make your brand stand out in a sea of competitors you’re definitely at risk of death by drowning.

Death by Irrelevance

Many brands just don’t know when they’ve already fallen off the edge of the earth. Sears was one that vanished at a time when many people already thought they’d gone out of business. Circuit City seems to be on the rocks in the same way and, odd as it may seem, RadioShack actually does still exist despite its hanging by what must be a superbly strong thread. And since the introduction of digital iPhone cameras, Kodak has been in a steady death spiral. But is it really necessary that these brands actually die off, don’t people still need electronics and department stores? What would help them is a reassessment of their current “Why,” alteration of the brand story to meet the new context and new audiences, and determination of the next steps that can help prevent an impending death by irrelevance.

Getting Your Story Straight

My rule is this: take a hard look at yourself in the mirror every year (at least). Think about how the world has changed, how your company has changed, and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does our Why reflect what is truly driving us today?      
  • Does the brand story still reflect that Why?
  • Am I being true to my story or have I strayed?
  • What does my brand identity mean to our current consumer family?

Don’t think too hard, just answer the questions quickly, because that answer will be the closest to your reality. Be honest with yourself. You may arrive at conclusions you don’t like, but honesty will keep you in business a lot longer.

The Takeaway

In the end, it pays to curate and nurture your company’s “Why” as part of a healthy, growing brand. That means maintaining vigilance of your brand story’s relevance to life today and your current community of consumers. If you don’t do that you risk extinction, and your outdated “Why” may be the death of you.

I’d like to hear from you. Do you have any interesting stories about brand story? Visit me on LinkedIn. Or, if you like, follow TopRight CEO Dave Sutton @toprightpartner and maybe grab a copy of his new book Marketing, Interrupted.

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