The same but different: Constant principles vs. constant change

It’s long been said that change is the only constant. If only it were that simple.

In today’s fast-moving business environment rife with disruptors, change is on everyone’s lips. “We have to change to grow.” “Change or become irrelevant.” “Change or die.” With this much panic amidst long-established brands, one would almost think the end of the world is near.

Evolutionists believe that change does not happen at an even rate. Sometimes accelerators such as meteors, climate change, viruses, or a new species get introduced into an environment. Business is not that different. Disruptive brands are one of those accelerators.

Brands like Uber, Airbnb, and Netflix have changed the game by calling many of the shots when it comes to innovation. Once almost solely under the purview of multinational conglomerates, innovation has now become a means for smaller players to make an impact. Technology has become an accelerator by acting as a democratizing force, and these disruptive brands are having their say.

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For a while now, some more established brands have chosen to rest on their laurels and ignore the inevitable. While it might be easiest in the short term to take Taylor Swift’s advice and just “shake it off,” this may cause problems down the road. Those taking the threat of innovation seriously will begin to look for their own ways to shake things up.

It’s a fact that future success for many brands will be dependent on the resources dedicated to innovation. But it’s more than that. And more difficult than that. It requires a shift in mindset.

To be truly adaptive, marketers need to stop policing their brands into stagnancy. An insistence on consistency does not allow for the kind of flexibility needed to compete in the current market. Brand managers need to embrace change and make it part of their culture. Change is good. It can refocus, refresh, and reinvigorate a brand.

But there’s the dilemma. How does a brand shake things up while remaining true to what it stands for? This balancing act will prey on every marketing director’s mind in the coming months and years as they try to build strong brands.

What constitutes a truly strong brand? One could argue it is a brand that remains true to its purpose while adapting to changing environments and needs. If principles remain respected, almost any other change is possible as long as the brand’s integrity is kept intact.

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And that’s why for any brand, the only constant shouldn’t be just change. If change is all that a company does, that leaves the brand in a precarious position where consumers no longer know what it stands for. It is brands’ agility—or lack thereof—that will determine the victors in the battle for consumers’ attention.

Agile brands do not seek indiscriminate mass appeal, but cater instead to specific needs or audiences. They are brands for anyone, but not for everyone.

Even a multi-platform and diversified brand like Disney has to be clear about its goals. Disney focuses on providing creativity, innovation, family, and magic. The company of “Imagineers” has benefitted from its faith in its principles, resulting in a very healthy bottom line.

Lego has undergone a shift to remain a prominent brand. On the verge of becoming irrelevant, Lego innovated and claimed a position even stronger than before. All the while, it stayed true to its core belief to “inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow.”

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Apple is another brand that understands how to balance innovation with principles. Its customers are buying more than a practically or sensually designed product. They’re buying into a deeper brand promise. Apple’s agile brand platform has allowed it to innovate and diversify its product portfolio while delivering a consistent trademark experience. It has balanced being highly adaptive with being highly principled. A commitment we can all surely agree has paid off for them.

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All of these highly agile brands took strong positions, stayed with them, and innovated—believing rightly that it would pay dividends in the long run. Other brands should follow suit, recognizing that they have an opportunity to look beyond just the specific product they provide to customers.

Brands need to be clear about what they stand for and make a strong long-term promise to customers. The strongest brands of the future will operate with a focus on agility, allowing for both adaptive and principled behavior.

It’s a matter of survival of the fittest.

 

This piece was first published in BrandLaureate Business World Review (June/July 2016).

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