How does a brand outgrow its defining characteristic?

How does a brand outgrow its defining characteristic

Twitter was built on 140 characters. Even though the limitation was serendipitous, it remains a defining characteristic of the brand in the minds of many. Concise thinking, hash-tagged to provide simple, global connection – there’s the Twitter value equation in a little under half the consigned quota. But the question Carl Miller asks is a good one. What happens when the idea that defined you starts to work to inhibit you?

A recent Atlantic article looks at Twitter’s aspiration to tap into what the world is thinking about any topic at any time and concludes, “if Twitter is indeed a global town square, it’s one that most of the town hasn’t entered yet—and one where the townsfolk who have entered seem to be doing more listening than talking these days.” The reasons? According to the article, volumes of tweets have stalled, the brand’s geographical footprint appears contained, and issues such as public accessibility and the rise of visually focused new media raise “the question of whether social media can really offer a frictionless, unfiltered forum for real-time conversations across countries and cultures, or whether those conversations will increasingly occur less visibly and more narrowly.”

Constancy and iteration

The freemium model is built on iteration and volume. Digital brands have traditionally built critical mass through a highly accessible offer, and then looked to convert loyalists to an enhanced version of the offer. That model has worked gangbusters for Evernote – but it depends on the premise for the brand remaining constant while the expression of the brand develops and adapts. The great thing about the premise for Evernote is that it is indeed constant. We all have too much information. We all crave ways to store it. We’re all worried about what we might forget or overlook.

Things seem less clear-cut when the very premise of the brand is undermined because then the search for a new and more durable identity becomes so much more intense. What tends to happen in that circumstance is that brands try to apply what they have been to what they need to be. Kodak stuck to film when it maybe should have reconsidered its future as a visual brand. Adobe, to their credit, saw that their future lay not in just being a technology but in championing and expressing creativity. Motorola and Nokia clung tenaciously to their mobile roots and steadily lost ground. The judgment call every business must make is – how close is close enough, how far is too far away?

The limit is not the problem

Twitter may have been defined by its character limit but that limit per se is not the problem and therefore its future doesn’t lie in simply changing that limit. The problem is engagement. The reason Twitter chose that length was so that the world had a concise medium within which to engage. Unless it can find a way to re-engage the world through what it offers, it risks becoming a global brand in pockets of the world only, and that in turn may hamper the effectiveness (and the attraction) of its investment proposition.

The complicating factor for Twitter is that its premise is so dependent on language which varies enormously. The constant is inconstant and becoming more so as the brand looks to embrace more languages. So it must bust new moves in a world that is fickle, fashionable and visual, or take the risk of pursuing a future limited to text. Ironically, the very premise that made the brand appealing has the potential to contract its future.

Brands are journeys just as they are stories – and the seismic shifts in the business and for the brand occur when the elements that have underpinned success, or upon which future success is built, move or are moved beyond where the business had planned. No brand can plan for every eventuality. But what brands increasingly need to do, as their periods of stability contract, is to map future options that tie back, probably in storylines, to where they began. The characteristic, too, must evolve from a feature like 140 characters into a spirit or an idea or a universal truth that the brand can take ownership of. It’s not good enough to simply evolve the platform, because the risk then, if you’re a digital brand, is that you simply join yet another technology fashion race.

The issues around defining characteristics are not limited to digital brands.

Coke may be the most successful beverage company but it’s struggling with how to reconcile what it offers with the calorific content that has in some ways defined it – in the sure and certain knowledge that when obesity overtakes happiness (as it is currently expressed through taste) on consumers’ priority list (and regulators’ watchlists), a new chapter will have to be written or the brand will fade. It won’t just be about being sugar-free. And if it is about refreshment or happiness, then it will probably have to be on a different footing than now.

In many ways, Coke already have the answer – in the sense that they have grasped the stinging nettle of the question. To move beyond its defining characteristic, Twitter will have to do something similar: imagine (and pursue) a business beyond words; one that doesn’t just look like the same business with pictures instead of text. And they will need to show how that shift translates to dollars. The critical judgment is of course timing. By the time Borders was ready to change, the world had already changed around it.

For me, a defining characteristic is like an anchor. It must hold you steady, but it cannot weigh you down. Smart brands keep the connection but let out the chain and allow the brand to move. Less successful brands cling to what they know and become stuck.

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