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Brand Mutation: Often tried, often failed

By Mattèo Piano - CEO Growingdale

Years ago, I introduced the term 'Brand Mutation' as a reaction to managers, gurus and consultants practising copy and paste tactics. For me, brand mutation is the attempt to insert attributes and behaviours of a brand or brands into another brand. I have seen companies investing considerable amounts of money and missing their goals big time. Brand mutation still seems to be a widely played sport by many consultants. Well, it is easy money. You just need a few successes and simply repeat your approach over and over again. If it fails, you just refer to the past successes and blame the failure on the client's unwillingness to adapt. At this moment the brand mutation strategy is still making victims. Don’t allow your brand to be one of them.

Why does brand mutation fail most of the time? Why do companies that copy already successful concepts, ideas and even identities from other brands fail to harvest the same success? These experiments devour budgets and weaken the perception of brands. For this reason alone they deserve our attention.

Mutations are changes in the genetic material during the cell copying process. According to evolution, a mutation improves and advances an organism. However, this is still a non-proven hypothesis. Science is still looking for the missing link to prove this theory. What we can scientifically state is that the overwhelming majority of mutations have no significant effect since DNA repair can revert most changes before they become permanent. Mutations that persist have a potentially harmful effect on the organism.

The most disquieting thing about brand mutation is that CEO’s ask for it. They like to work with consultants who have previous experience with their competitors. Within the context of marketing one can use prior experiences and use accredited benchmarks to develop strategies. Branding though, is an entirely different story.

A brand is deemed to be unique and should stand out from its competitors. I cannot stress enough that a brand is a living entity with its own and unique DNA. Approaching growth from a biotic point of view is imperative. The word 'biotic' simply means 'alive'. Only living organisms grow, dead ones don't. Most companies don’t know their DNA. Often this lack of awareness reveals that they don’t have a strong one. In moments of crisis, they neglect their DNA altogether and start looking at their competitors. They try to research what their customers like about their competitors’ brand(s) and copy it. They call this benchmarking. Branding and benchmarking are not compatible. Customers strongly disapprove of 'me too' brands. Still, many brand owners approach their brands from a marketing angle, practising brand mutation — often without realising it. Their brands resemble Frankenstein’s monster, bits and pieces of other brands stitched together.

Something wrong with the 'perception'

Years ago I read an article about a Flemish commercial TV network having problems with their 'perception'. The reason behind the article was the fact that this TV network attracted a famous crowd-puller from the state television who was responsible for mega successes. However, at the commercial TV network he did not deliver the results (growth) they expected.

They were using the same format this famous crowd-puller used before at the state television. Instead of appealing to over a million viewers as was accredited to him in the past, now he got a little more than 300.000 viewers. The previously successful format flopped, and the commercial network finally admitted there was something wrong with their 'perception'. Did the people at the commercial network ask themselves whether the format and the TV personality matched with their DNA? Did they develop guidelines to define how TV formats should be like, according to their key values? Did they exhaust the full potential from within their brand DNA? Does their audience know what the TV network stands for? Is the network's brand a result of a market survey or the vision, values and vocation of the brand owners? Do they know why people should have a preference for their TV network? Only the answers to these questions can unlock their growth potential.

It is evident that in the current economic reality failures are severely sanctioned by customers, and the affected brand needs to invest double efforts to regain leadership. Why? Because customers question the soundness of the brand and start having second thoughts. Once the emotional credit of a brand is used up, it takes more time to build it up again. To lose trust may take one second, to regain it may take years.

I have often seen managers taking their past successful ideas and apply them to other companies. Here, I witnessed two scenarios. In case a company was strong enough and the employees were conscious about their brand DNA, the managers never survived their brand mutation attempt.

In case the organisation was weak, the mutation harmed it. This phenomenon is happening more frequently. Successful managers are attracted from outside to turn a brand or a company around. The manager then works with his 'proven' methods, changing the identity of the company, based on his previous experiences. Interestingly, many of them fail. They get fired and leave with their head up high, their pockets full, and with the usual excuse 'I cannot be blamed since I have proven in the past that my approach works'.


When Steve Jobs left Apple, the company fell into the trap of brand mutation and started to lean more towards the competitors. At Apple, this had two outcomes. Rejection and weakening. They lost their market share, and the existing customers reacted against their new approach. Even dropping the prices could not satisfy their customers. After Steve Jobs returned, Apple was consistently true again to its brand DNA and recorded the strongest one-year growth ever on NASDAQ.

What do you do if your brand is not performing satisfactorily? First, go back to your brand DNA. Familiarise yourself with your values, visions and vocations and stay true to it. Second, make sure your brand converts your target group's needs — both rational and emotional. Third, make sure your brand translates these needs consistently and coherently the way only your brand can. Finally, establish a two-way relationship with your customers and regularly ask them how they experience the relationship with your brand.

My advice to brand owners is not to use marketing tactics to try and strengthen your brand. Brand mutations simply don’t work. Instead, spend time and energy in getting to know your brand and make sure your customers can experience your brand DNA in everything your company does. You will experience that a strong brand will leverage your marketing efforts.

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