Brands in the Age of Agility

All brands today face a new challenge: the speed of technology and market change demand a certain agility. But too much change by a brand and, well, it's not a brand anymore as it runs the risk of losing its customers doing things the customers just don't believe. Too little change and the brand loses its audience to new brands.

Digital brands, of course, face this in a much more real way as digital fads and technology change almost daily.

Many digital brands move quickly — growth and loss come often and fast. But what dictates the terms of that change? How can a brand construct itself so that it maximizes flexibility — allowing it to adjust, to enter new markets, to launch new experiences — while still offering a coherent vision?

One strategy is to create sub-brands and let the master brand move into the background to a greater or lesser degree depending on the kinds of experiences it creates. Creating sub-brands — brands that are related to the master but not subservient, if you will — give the brand permission to address specific markets with different kinds of products and messaging. EA, for instance, created EA Sports with its own tagline, its own sub-mark, its own advertising, etc.

Archie Comics found itself cornered and then did an interesting thing: it superseded its brand through irony, making an obsolete vision relevant to a new market. But this is a difficult thing to achieve and I think only worked because it had such cultural currency to begin with. IBM, of course, did a similar thing, moving from hardware to services. But, again, that was a brutal slough for the company.

One strategy, then, is to build a brand that is predicated on a vision of life, of the kinds of experience it believes in, rather than on products. If IBM had started as a "smarter planet" company, moving from hardware to services would have been much easier.

The problem is that few companies take the time to foster a vision. They have a product — wooohooo! — and take it to market — wooohoooo! And next thing you know, that product has come to define the brand. Meanwhile, the C-suite never stops to think because the company is making money. But they're not looking ahead to the change that is both inevitable and imminent.

Without a sound strategy, the brand runs the risk of making decisions that leave it in a corner where it loses permission to change.