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How to use the Madonna factor in brand reinvention

How to use the Madonna factor in brand reinvention

By Adrian Whitefoord from P&W

The guardianship and management of brands is full of difficult decisions.
For marketing directors one the toughest choices must be whether or not to radically change the look and personality of their charges.

There are some brands which seem to have in-built immutability: Marmite, Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce and Newcastle Brown Ale are all good examples.  These are the classics which rise above all the fashions and fads of the marketplace and flourish happily with only minor updates to their livery.

In this situation, brand management is about not rocking the boat; it becomes a task of careful maintenance and incremental change rather than dramatic revolution.

However, there are brands which appear to have the extraordinary ability to completely re-invent themselves - sometimes defying marketing death in the process.

Lucozade the old-fashioned invalid drink surprised everyone when it underwent a metamorphosis into a sports beverage; Terry¹s All Gold, the ‘down at heel’ chocolate assortment, avoided delistings by repositioning itself as a fully-fledged premium brand; and Brylcreem, the outdated haircream, discovered a new strength through extension into male haircare products. 

The strategy appears to be high risk but as evergreen pop star Madonna has demonstrated over the last twenty years, reinvention through dramatic changes of identity and positioning can be a very effective way of keeping a brand salient and relevant to its customers.

Some market sectors are particularly suited to the Madonna strategy but have yet to exploit the technique.  For instance alcoholic drinks and beers in the on trade have to survive in an especially fickle, ever-changing market place.

There is a constant tension between staying faithful to the original brand values and riding the wave of new fads and fashions of young 'clubbers' and

Because the on and off trade is largely controlled by the major breweries, it has the facility to launch and distribute brands quickly and can therefore react to changes in consumer tastes and preferences.  Some companies have succumbed to the temptation and simply created an endless stream of short-lived brands.

Hooch and Two Dogs are memorable examples from the alcopops sector; once they were favourites with young drinkers but they were soon superseded by other entrants into the marketplace.  Whilst this sort of strategy can have a short-term benefit the tactic is costly and ultimately degrades the brand portfolio.

Developing  'Madonna' brands, with the chameleon ability to keep up with current trends, whilst also retaining the familiarity of a strong umbrella brand, is therefore a far better option.  But how should companies go about it?  And how far can the technique extend?

GlaxoSmithKline¹s Lucozade is an object lesson for aspiring Madonna marketers.  Traditionally it was a favourite with parents of young children who bought the product as an invalid drink but it underwent a complete transformation of identity which opened the door to a raft of brand extensions.

By throwing off its associations with convalescence but still retaining its core values of 'health' and 'trustworthiness', it was able to build a completely new image based on 'sports'.

This reinvention was so successful that today a typical supermarket stocks around eight incarnations of the brand. Whilst the original variant can be found on the shelves and looks much the same in its large bottle format, it has dropped glass in favour of plastic and lost the orange cellophane along with its connotations of sickly children.

It now has to fit into the ‘energy drink’ postioning which has spawned so many successful extensions and variations. 

Lucozade sports and fitness beverages in contemporary packaging now dominate and demonstrate that a good Madonna brand has the potential to expand its offering.

However, marketers need to be careful not to push the envelope too far: Madonna herself may have done pop, rock and rap but if she got into Barber Shop, support from fans might soon start to erode.  Likewise, Lucozade will also need to respect the boundaries - an isotonic drink may work but an alcopop version would certainly be a bridge too far.
On the retail side, a brand which has proved its Madonna capabilities is Tesco.  Over the last 15 years it has overtaken Sainsbury and consolidated its position as the number one major multiple.  In the late eighties it was definitely seen as leaning towards the cheap and cheerful end of the market.

However it then underwent a metamorphosis into a quality brand which could provide customers with super premium products under the umbrella of the
‘Finest’ range as well as the upmarket urban offer of Tesco Metro stores.

This is a dramatic overturn of its ‘pile it high sell it cheap’ origins although - like Lucozade - it has been careful not totally abandon its original offer.  The Tesco Value range has been a crowd pleaser since its inception several years ago and is still part of the retailer¹s portfolio.

For marketers, the lesson is that total reinvention can be a way of assuring long-term survival.  Just as pop stars can draw on contemporary trends and developments to redefine their image and product, businesses can radically shift the positioning of their brands and adapt to changing consumers.

The advantage is that there can be continuity in name and awareness whilst still allowing the flexibility to target different customer bases and develop different  albeit related  products.  Consumers will still feel they know and understand the brand just as fans maintain a link with Madonna despite her constant changes in music style and look.

Intrinsic to this is preserving the core brand values.  Even if a different audience is targeted, a brand will have to maintain its integrity in order to flourish.

As communication becomes ever easier and media proliferates, the pace of consumer change inexorably gathers momentum. The Madonna brand will therefore become an increasingly common feature within the marketplace.

Marketers who recognise that they are here to stay and acquire the skills to manage their transformations, will find that they stay ahead of the game.

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