How Barnes & Noble can save itself from becoming a Kodak moment

February 02, 2012

Allen Adamson
Managing Director,
based in Landor New York
What Barnes & Noble needs to do in order not to follow Kodak into the brand book of memories is to rethink its business strategy; determine how it can take the products and services if offers and leverage them in a way that no one else in the category is doing, or can do.

A colleague told me about a Halloween party she attended a few years back to which a cheeky young woman came dressed as an over-sized book, the cover on which was painted a giant red circle with the slash through it. Asked to explain her costume, she replied with a sly grin, "Print is dead." Seems she worked in the digital world and had grave doubts (pun intended) about the future of such archaic things as paper, ink, and the printing press. I thought about this scenario while reading a recent article in the New York Times about Barnes & Noble and its efforts to keep its brand very much alive and relevant in the evolving category of books and publishing, be it hard copy or digital. Given my brand-builder's view of the marketplace, and given that I've spent my fair share of pleasant hours browsing the aisles of Barnes & Noble, I thought I'd weigh in on the topic of how to save a brand when there's a fundamental shift in the business it's in.

Let me start by talking about another iconic brand recently in the news for much the same reason: Kodak. For me, like millions of others, the name Kodak evokes, well, "Kodak moments," the funny, endearing, and poignant times in our lives captured in snapshots and set aside in photo albums to be shared with family when the holidays roll around. In other words, you think about memory keeping, the simple, evocative idea on which this wonderful brand was built. Well, the challenge for Kodak and the reason for its recent bankruptcy filing is that with the massive disruption and evolution in the technology and Internet sectors, the "memory keeping" categories have been turned on their heads and Kodak hasn't been able to get ahead of them in any of its many business units. It no longer has a product that solves a problem for consumers, or meets a consumer need, in a way that's relevantly better or different than other brands in its field, be it imaging and printing, cameras, celluloid film, or basic photography.

Kodak's current moment speaks to the basic branding principle referred to as "fit and leverage." Sure, many Kodak products "fit" logically into the areas in which it competed, be it cameras, film, or printing. The problem was that it hasn't been able to "leverage" any of these things in any significant or sustainable way. It hasn't been able to come up with a better mousetrap and has lost its competitive advantage across the board. And this is the daunting challenge now being faced by Barnes & Noble.

What Barnes & Noble needs to do in order not to follow Kodak into the brand book of memories is to rethink its business strategy; determine how it can take the products and services if offers—good fits all, by the way—and leverage them in a way that no one else in the category is doing, or can do. Now, you don't have to be a tech expert to know that the company's Nook will never beat Apple at the e-reader game. Nor do you have to be an actuary to know that Barnes & Noble will never beat Amazon on pure scale, be it Kindle related or otherwise. But if Barnes & Noble looks hard enough and thinks smart enough it might find a play that's not yet on the playing field, a way of combining the best of retail book selling with the best of what people love about reading in a digital world. Remember, Barnes & Noble has something its competitors don't—a ubiquitous and very popular brick and mortar presence. To survive the category evolution, it has to somehow bundle its goods and services in a way that's different from what's already out there in a way that consumers care about (the mark, of course, of every strong brand).

It's hard for any successful company, especially those with iconic brand names, to imagine how life could possibly go on without them. Kodak never believed in its heart that film would go away so soon. Likewise, Barnes & Noble cannot assume (which it doesn't) that printed books will live forever as a business model on which it can survive. Based on what I read about Barnes & Noble's efforts, it's definitely seen the writing on the wall. Just as I'm not happy to see that the Kodak brand will likely become like one of its own moments, something only to be remembered, I won't be happy to see Barnes & Noble succumb to the same fate. Only an aggressive push to find a fit that can be leveraged will save it from becoming just another fond brand memory.


From Forbes.com

Category: Brand strategy & positioning
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