23 April 2018

Refreshing Established Food and Drink Brands

There are six routes for a brand to acquire new relevant meaning

We are emotional beings when we buy food and drink brands. In a crowded and noisy supermarket, our brains are inundated with information overload which we struggle to rationally compute at speed. Our default position is to buy brands that talk to us emotionally, food and drink brands aim to forge emotional connections with consumers. In a world increasingly fascinated by the shiny and the new, it has become ever harder for established brands to maintain the emotional meaning that once made them famous. All too often they rely on sales tactics like discounting, reducing quantity/quality and other margin protecting measures. They have simply lost their strategic strength and resort to hand-to-mouth sales tactics that drive the brand and category value down.

Time and time again we see brands that once had enormous emotional meaning in people’s lives simply lose their way. It need not be this way. They are often sitting on decades of accumulated latent meaning deep in our memory structures. It is possible to refresh those emotional connections to invoke long lost meaning and once again trigger buyers. This is how to do it.

The Six Paths to Building Emotional Meaning

There are six routes for a brand to acquire new relevant meaning. Every brand that means something to us has made that connection by leveraging one or more of these paths. To understand how to refresh that connection we need to explore each path and gain an understanding of what your brand meant to people in the first place, means to people today, and could mean when it’s being refreshed tomorrow:

1. History

Many brands derive meaning from the values and beliefs of the founder who created them in the first place. Think Virgin, you think Richard Branson and his values of charisma, irreverence, the underdog fighter come in to challenge the establishment and do things his way. We forgive most Virgin brands (E.g. Virgin Trains most weeks!) more than we would a competitor because of his values and beliefs.

Or a brand like Jack Daniels, one where nobody really knows the founder story but they understand the heritage, tradition and care that goes into every whiskey they make. As in this case the founder may no longer be present, for whatever reason. Or the perception of them may have changed over the years, what was dynamic, likeable and relevant three decades ago may no longer be. Or the founder may remain present and popular but the brand has lost its connection to that person.

Loyd Grossman, Linda McCartney and Paul Newman all have food products that were built on their founders' beliefs. It’s vital to understand the history and story of the brand to see what still resonates with people and can be built on in the future.

2. Belief

We buy into more than just a product, we buy into what the brand means to us and if it shares the same values and outlook on the world that we do. Anita Roddick set out to revolutionise the beauty industry and put an end to animal testing, but what happens when that mission has been achieved? Or people don’t place it as highly on their agenda?

Other belief-based brands falter when competitors are able to make the same claim more credibly – once we’ve reached parity we need to re-evaluate our beliefs. Bold belief-based brands resonate but are quite rightly being put under the microscope by campaigners and the media – it is very easy for their shine to fade rapidly overnight. Once the commercial potential of a belief becomes noticed many jump on the same bandwagon and emulate or better it.

It’s vital that you believe in something, the brand must have been created with a belief for a better or different way to what all others were doing. Innocent Smoothies was set up by 3 friends who simply wanted to put something good in their bodies in the morning. They spotted a gap for cleaner smoothies and led the way to this day and have evolved that belief to “we’re here to make it easy for people to do themselves some good (whilst making it taste nice too)”. Review that made you better or different in the first place and how you could refresh that belief for a brighter tomorrow.

3. Icons

Icons are the signposts that drive emotional connection when we buy. They can touch all five of our senses - think of the fragrance of a Lush soap store as you walk past pulling you in, the cool, clean lines of the latest new iPhone, the revving of a Ferrari engine, or the taste of Heinz tomato soup. All are recognised the world over, instantly. However, for every enduring icon you can think there are others that have faded from our popular consciousness.

Thorntons was fast becoming a karaoke chocolate brand and was at risk of losing its emotional connection. At a time when Hotel Chocolat had begun to steal its thunder on the high street and the confectionery chocolate brands were stealing share in the mults. Our insights told us that people still valued the brand as the ideal gift for family and friends as it showed you cared that little bit more than the chocolate brands, but this connection was lost and the packaging looked tired. A visual icon for a gift is a bow, so we placed that dead and centre at the heart of the brand and watched the brand go back into growth, strong double digit growth in a flat boxed confectionery market. It became a powerful new shorthand to Thorntons latent memory structure around the perfect gift. Tapping into that gifting memory via a simple but powerful icon helped to re-establish the meaning of Thorntons today.

Icons are powerful brand assets that can create a quick shortcut to the brand, explore what iconographic assets you have today and what you could build on in the future.

4. Rituals

Coke’s glug, Amazon’s one-click order, watching your Uber turn the corner towards you, opening your new iPhone packaging – these are all rituals that bring reassurance to our lives. But rituals can be taken for granted and fade over time. Think of the pouring of Nescafé - gold beans turning from black to gold, or putting your ear to the bowl at breakfast and listening to the to the snap, crackle and pop of Rice Krispies. When society is changing around us a brand can let its rituals slip into the abyss, losing one of its most powerful emotive connections.

5. Language  

In the madmen era of the 1960s the world of advertising centred on the words that we read. Today we live in more of a visceral world empowered by image. But language still plays a powerful role in a brand’s arsenal. Think of a ‘double tall, vanilla soy hot latte’ and it takes you to Starbucks. Think of a market comparison site that uses an iconic animal and the word ‘Simples’ and you think of, where language and wordplay is at the heart of the brand.

The language that you use can be so powerful, and some of the strongest brands in their categories stand out with the language they use. Think of the irreverence and play of Virgin when on a train, or the sense of humour in a First Direct ad.

Language is one of our most powerful brand assets and it’s an area where we see too few brands focusing their attention, either creating their own language and tone, or creating powerful messaging that connects people and brands.

6. Enemies

The final path to your brand refresh is having an enemy to fight against. Every brand has an enemy they are fighting against and it helps you to focus on what makes you stand out, different but most importantly relevant.

Avis’s famous ‘We Try Harder’ campaign still holds true today and was recently dropped to only be resurrected within a matter of months. McDonald’s recent fight against the Starbucks coffee barista hipster with its straightforward and simple coffee offer, or Apple’s ‘Mac versus PC’ campaign.

Understanding your enemies' strengths and weaknesses can only empower you to refresh your brand with more relevance than your competitors.

Making it mean something

Evaluating these six benchmarks should leave you with a clear understanding of what your brand once meant to consumers, what it means today and what it could mean tomorrow. In some cases, this meaning is still strong today, and your job is to simply remind people of what the brand once meant to them. For brand marketers who often feel they need to make their mark on a brand and take it in a totally new direction to drive their careers forward, this can be challenging. For those brand marketers their role is one of custodian and ensuring what is meaningful and has gone before is not lost forever. In other cases, the world will have changed to the extent that your past meaning cannot be reinvigorated. You need a complete refresh, creating new meaning and forging new connections.

With most established brands the next step is to find ways to build on what you once meant, and to make it relevant to consumers today. We helped Birds Eye to do just this and drive growth across a frozen seafood portfolio that was showing few signs of growth. The business had set Captain Birds Eye adrift over a decade ago in favour of a ‘brand first’ masterbrand strategy, a strategy that simply didn’t work or build an emotional connection. We helped to bring the Captain back to the table, helping Mums to feed their children healthy, simply made fish.

Driving a powerful emotional connection

Once you have found this point of connection with your audience – reigniting the memory structure in a way that matters to today’s consumer – you need to keep it simple. People are looking for quick signposts to decode when in buying mode. Over-complicate and you will lose the connection.

Yet simple is not the same as easy. For many corporate brands, it is challenging to be honest about the fact that what you meant a decade or two ago is not what you mean today, and to draw colleagues out of their comfortable zones to a place where they can remember what is genuinely meaningful in people’s lives. It is far from easy.

Brands need to rediscover that meaningful connection, focus in on a single, simple message, communicate it in a way that is both visual and experiential, orchestrate intelligent conversations, play a role in people’s lives, but above all else make that all important emotional connection.


Richard Taylor