Why the customer’s not always right when changing brand images

Why the customer’s not always right when changing brand images

Brands should consider turning themselves inside-out to achieve real change, rather than relying on what their customers think of them.

That was the central message from Dr Ian Combe, a lecturer in marketing strategy at Aston Business School, speaking at the latest Fresh Perspectives business breakfast briefing on Thursday 28 September.

Dr Combe explained that the traditional way of measuring and developing a brand image was based on what your customers think of you, typically presented on brand perception maps and compared to competitive brands.

This “outside-in thinking” could work in stable conditions or when exploiting a brand is required because it used simple visuals and led to decisions based on current customers’ needs and wants.

But he said: “This approach can be rather subjective, only comparing brands to existing and close competition, and is likely to encourage small incremental modifications that customers can articulate.

“Because of this, many firms tend to build on the past to fit with organisational culture and history, with advertising-led change or communication changes such as logos and colours.”

Dr Combe said that typical marketing texts further limited how bosses went about changing brands, as they recommended “consistency and stable competitive positioning”.

But he asked: “What happens when an organisation’s culture and history are not so useful for the future, when firms cannot afford large advertising campaigns or when they need substantive change?”

He discussed the example of MPREIS supermarkets in Austria, whose sales were struggling because they had copied the Aldi format but could not compete on price in their small, inner-city stores.

MPREIS had a discount store appearance with poor displays and crowded, untidy aisles, coming across as a “stack ’em high, sell ’em cheap” approach.

Dr Combe said: “They badly needed change, but if they’d asked the customer they would just have called for lower prices, or perhaps a little more room.”

Instead, MPREIS employed strategic thinking for a creative brand development, starting with in-depth interviews with bosses, consumers and a small project team, asking: “What’s worked, and what’s not worked – and therefore what ideas do we have for the future.”

The company also conducted detailed cultural analysis, asking: “What do we need to disrupt, what’s ‘cool’ and what codes, symbols and systems of meanings might be attractive to large numbers of consumers?”

The result was that MPREIS decided to focus on taste and freshness rather than price, offering exclusive variety rather than interchangeable assortments.

The firm used modern architecture to exploit beautiful surroundings, rather than being old dowdy discount stores, and used ‘Zeitgeist communications’ – such as printing local poems on delicatessen wrappings.

Dr Combe said: “This led to a new ‘quality of life’ brand through aesthetics, and over 22 years MPREIS was transformed into probably the sexiest supermarket in the world.”

He said there were key stages needed to change any corporate brand identity in this way, including:

  • The involvement of the chief executive.
  • A working team to analyse the past and present, assess current organisational cultures, research what meanings are associated with the brand and consider what should be kept and what should change.
  • Staff workshops with small teams to build a future vision, develop new cultural meanings and attractive codes to build a new corporate brand identity.
  • Decisions on choosing the most attractive images to link to the brand to come via in-depth interviews with bosses
  • The new corporate brand to be implemented through more workshops with staff.

Dr Combe added: “This inside-out thinking is what’s needed when substantive brand building and real change and development is required.”

The process is described in detail in the following article (the copyright is held by the journal):

Botschen, G., Combe, I. A. & Thelen, E. (2012) Brand driven Leadership for Change Management in Retailing, European Retail Research, Vol. II. pp.1-18. https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-658-00717-1 

Book your free place at the next Fresh Perspectives briefing ‘New Insights into Customer Relationship Management on Tuesday 10 October.