All too often, leading brands lose their way. Polaroid. Eastman-Kodak. PanAm. Wang. Digital Equipment (DEC). The history of business is littered with such stories. But why did these once industry-leading companies stumble? They were pioneers in their fields. Yet, their names are no longer with us or, in the case of Kodak, a pale imitation of its once great self.

Collapses like those occur for a variety of reasons, depending on the circumstances. They can arise from a combination of factors, such as when a weak economy creates opportunities for an upstart competitor to poach customers with a less-expensive alternative and/or a more robust version of the industry leader’s standard model.

The failure is gradual. It happens because the industry leader is slow to respond to an evolving marketplace, placing false confidence in an established position atop the market.

Polaroid and Eastman-Kodak both reacted too slowly and tardily to the advent and quick adoption of digital photography. PanAm didn’t adapt to a newly competitive airline industry when U.S. regulatory controls were eased, opening the field to a plethora of discount competitors.

Likewise, Wang and Digital Equipment ignored the coming of the PC, first from IBM and then the clones. Where are Wang and DEC today?

Lazy Certitude

At the heart of such failures, we can usually find a lazy certitude that the status quo will continue ad infinitum. That belief is accompanied by a loss of connection between the people who comprise the companies and the essence of their brand – i.e., what it stands for. Brands must stand for promises made to customers – be it quality, cutting edge technology, responsiveness, superior customer service, or any number of other reasons that people choose one brand over another.

Companies stumble because the brand promise gradually erodes and becomes hollow bluster, echoing an earlier self-image built on promises actually delivered. This bluster masks a reality of unfulfilled promises and a lack of requisite confidence of the people that make brands live every day. This confidence is built on leaders, managers and employees living the brand promise every day in every thing they do.

That loss of confidence and connection to what the brand once stood for occurs across the organization – and it festers. Lack of confidence produces more of the same and greater disconnection from the promise of meeting or exceeding customer expectations.

This can be a natural trend affecting any business, but in this era, the speed at which change happens and impacts organizations is far faster than ever before.

Trend Spotting

Spotting such trends and arresting them begins by recognizing and acknowledging that the organization has lost its core meaning, lost touch with what made it great and the leader in its field in the first place. It may still be the leader, but not much longer if its promise is being eroded by an organizational disconnect.

It is coasting on its established reputation. It is moving from one quarter to the next focused on revenue and profitability, but without a shared sense of purpose or definition of what it is, or what it stands for. Is this your company today?

What are your brand promise, vision, and mission? Are they just words on paper, or are the employees, managers and leaders really living them in what they do every day? Are the words and phrases dynamic – which is to say, do they evolve and grow as circumstances change, or are they a mere snapshot of what you once were?

The challenge around reviving a brand or market position is not so much a revision or reiteration of the words and phrases that describe the brand. Rather, it is the imperative to reconnect every person in the organization and what they do with the true meaning of the venture – its core purpose, mission, vision, and the promises it makes to its constituents. The outcome of that exercise may very well be a complete revision of the brand promise, mission and vision.

But at the outset, put aside completely the fixation on the words. Rather, work to guide individual employees to rediscover and rebuild their confidence in what the company and the brand signify, thereby reaffirming the brand promise. Assure their focus is on continuing to deliver on the promise that the brand represents so that customer experiences reaffirm it.

For additional insights into this challenge and opportunity, see our recent whitepaper, “Is Your Brand/Organization Being Marginalized?